It's the ILA's turn

It's the ILA's turn

A year ago, the shipping industry was still working through disruption that followed the fall 2002 lockout of West Coast longshoremen during contract negotiations. This year, the attention is focused on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.

The International Longshoremen's Association and waterfront management have begun negotiations on a contract to replace the one that expires Sept. 30. The pace of those talks is expected to pick up during the next several weeks. The U.S. Maritime Alliance, the umbrella group for employers and regional management associations, is scheduled to meet with the ILA's wage-scale committee later this month at Tampa.

Although ILA President John Bow-ers said he would use the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's six-year contract on the West Coast as a starting point for his union's bargaining, no one is predicting the kind of strife that accompanied the ILWU talks.

The ILA's last major contract-related work stoppage was a three-day strike at North Atlantic ports in 1986. The union's last coastwide strike was a 1977 walkout that targeted container, ro-ro and barge-carrying ships. Union and management officials have emphasized their desire for an early, peaceful settlement next year. "We're not looking for a strike," Bowers has said repeatedly.

The current negotiations are the ILA's first full-blown round of bargaining since 1996, when the union and management negotiated a five-year agreement that in 2000 was extended through next September.

There are parallels between the contract negotiations of the ILA and the ILWU, but there also are important differences.

Unlike the ILWU, which deals with a single coastwide organization, the ILA negotiates local contracts with multiple employer associations at nearly three dozen Atlantic and Gulf ports. The situation is complicated further by the presence of non-ILA competition for bulk and breakbulk cargo and by competition between ports and among stevedores and terminal operators that employ ILA labor.

In the ILA discussions, technology will be an issue, as it was in the West Coast negotiations. The Pacific Maritime Association entered negotiations with the ILWU determined to win terms making it easier for management to introduce labor-saving technology on the docks. The PMA achieved that goal, but paid dearly. The ILWU maintained its health benefits at current levels, and won sweetened pension benefits that will allow longshoremen to retire with up to $63,000 a year in annual pay.

Waterfront management on the East and Gulf coasts also have signaled they want to ensure that they are able to apply new technology in ports. The cost of health-care benefits, which have been rising nationally, are another top issue. Both the USMX and the ILA have been working with Paul Richardson & Associates to develop estimates of how much various contract provisions would cost.

Management made its first contract offer to the ILA in October. Among other things, the USMX offered annual wage increases of 50 cents an hour in each of the next three years. The ILA's basic wage for container and roll-on, roll-off cargo now is $27 an hour.

During the interim before this month's session in Tampa, the ILA has been holding preliminary meetings with local and regional management associations to discuss local contracts, which cover bulk and breakbulk cargo and myriad port-specific provisions. The Industry Resources Committee, a permanent labor-management group, also has continued to meet.

Normally, local contracts are settled after the ILA and management agree on a coastwide master contract for container and ro-ro work. Bowers said, however, that he wanted to keep the process moving along to minimize the chance of a work stoppage this fall.

Although the ILA hasn't had a coastwide work stoppage in more than 25 years, there have been several short-lived strikes over local issues, often complicated by intraunion politics. That's a possibility again this year, even with a peaceful settlement on the coastwide master contract.

Another wild card in this year's ILA negotiations has been the continuing federal investigation into allegations of mob influence over the union. Citing indictments of officials of ILA locals in Brookyn, N.Y., and Bayonne, N.J., prosecutors have been trying to build a racketeering case against the union. ILA and management officials are hoping the investigation doesn't disrupt this year's contract negotiations.