Imbalance of power

Imbalance of power

In the 1960s and 1970s, the International Longshoremen's Association had bargaining muscle and knew how to apply it, winning a series of contracts with income guarantees, royalty programs and other favorable provisions. Not coincidentally, those also were the years when the trans-Atlantic was the dominant foreign trade route and the ILA's New York stronghold was the nation's largest port.

Today, the trans-Pacific is the busiest U.S. trade lane and the West Coast ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach each handle more containers than the Port of New York and New Jersey. And it's no coincidence that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union now enjoys the kind of power the ILA used to wield.

The June 8 ratification of the ILA's new six-year master contract for Atlantic and Gulf ports brought inevitable comparisons between the ILA and ILWU contracts. The West Coast contract reflects the ILWU's bargaining leverage. Although the agreement freed management to introduce more labor-saving technology, it provided dockworkers with pay raises, continued free medical care and a sweetened pension plan.

Comparisons, though, are skewed by the unions' sharply different operating environments. Besides operating at the receiving end of the world's busiest container trade, the ILWU has no non-union competition in West Coast ports. The ILA retains an effective monopoly over the business of major container lines through master-contract terms that prohibit signatory lines from using non-ILA terminals. The ILA, however, faces strong competition for breakbulk cargo that is not covered by the master contract. Unlike the ILWU, the ILA's ports also compete vigorously among themselves.

The ILA's new contract reflects those differences in the unions' bargaining leverage. The East Coast contract continues a two-tier wage scale, although the gap between upper and lower levels is narrowed. The ILA's new three-tiered medical plan, while superior to anything available to the vast majority of American workers, is not on par with the ILWU's.

Reflecting decades of bargaining practices, the unions' contracts are structured and negotiated differently. The ILWU negotiates with the Pacific Maritime Association on a coastwide contract covering all ports and all cargo. The ILA negotiates with a coastwide employer group on a master contract that applies only to containerized and roll-on, roll-off cargo. Supplementary local contracts with local or regional employer groups cover work rules, pensions and local benefit plans. Local contracts also cover bulk and breakbulk wages, which are lower than master-contract rates and vary by port and cargo.

Over the years, ILA and ILWU base wages for containerized cargo have been roughly in line with each other. The new ILA contract raises base pay from the current $27 an hour to $31 over six years, while the ILWU's rises from $27.68 to $30.68 from 2002 to 2007. As part of its acceptance of greater automation, the ILWU's agreement will provide an additional $3 or more to operators of cranes or other equipment.

Base wages, though, don't tell the full story. Skill differentials and premium pay for night and weekend work boost pay for members of both unions. ILWU crane operators in Southern California also benefit from contract provisions granting eight hours of pay for four hours' work, and from side deals allowing as much as five days' pay for three days of work. Average pay for ILWU longshoremen working full time in 2003 topped $115,000.

The ILA says its members who worked full time handling container and ro-ro cargo averaged $80,000 last year, including overtime and premium pay, and workers in some ports received container-royalty bonuses of up to $15,000. But those royalty payments, based on formulas, vary by port - yet another aspect of the contract that defies easy comparison.