West Coast waterfront employers are formulating their bargaining strategy for the 2014 contract negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, and it appears the main issues will center around pensions, health care and, especially, jurisdiction.
Jim McKenna, president of the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators in contract talks, expects “long, hard negotiations” with the ILWU when talks begin next spring. The existing contract will expire on June 30.
However, McKenna told a meeting of the Pacific Transportation Association Thursday in Oakland that he does not expect the 2014 negotiations to be as contentious as they were in 2002 and 2008.
The 2002 negotiations were the most difficult since 1970 because they involved the introduction of technology at marine terminals. After bitter talks, the 2002 negotiations deteriorated due to ILWU work slowdowns, followed by a 10-day employer lockout and pressure from the federal government to end the lockout. Employers won the right to use computer technology to improve efficiency and, ultimately, to eliminate some marine clerk jobs.
In the 2008 contract, employers secured the right to use any automated machines they deem necessary to make cargo-handling more efficient so they can reduce the time that today’s costly large vessels remain in port. By definition, automated cranes and the use of robotics eliminate some longshore jobs.
“Virtually every terminal in Southern California is exploring automation,” McKenna said. However, automation is very costly and requires the handling of huge cargo volumes in order to achieve an adequate return on investment, so some terminals will delay automation and others may choose not to automate, he said.
The 2002 and 2008 contracts were watershed events on the West Coast because they changed forever how cargo will be handled. While the 2014 negotiations are not expected to be as impactful, they will still be significant because they reflect larger trends that are under way in the national economy.
Chief among those developments is a “combative, emotional” desire by unions everywhere to maintain and expand jurisdiction as employers in their industries turn increasingly to the use of technology to drive efficiencies and cost reductions, McKenna said.
Longshore unions on both coasts have been involved in fierce battles the past two years, with the ILWU on the West Coast and the International Longshoremen’s Association on the East Coast battling to protect their jurisdiction, sometimes against other unions and sometimes to resist employers that use non-union labor.
McKenna cited recent ILWU jurisdictional battles involving grain terminals in the Pacific Northwest, office clerical work in Southern California and maintenance and repair work in Portland. The ILA on the East Coast has also been involved in some high-profile jurisdictional fights. “It’s very consistent what has been playing out here,” he said.
The potential loss of jobs due to technology and automation has become a rallying point for union leaders in many industries, and jurisdictional issues will therefore be front and center in next year’s ILWU negotiations.
“Technology hits at the heart of what union leadership is all about. Maintaining and expanding jurisdiction will rule the day,” McKenna said.