A new leadership team took control of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Tuesday, as the powerful West Coast union faces the challenge of advancing the economic status of its membership while working with employers to prevent a further loss of market share to East Coast ports.
The ILWU’s first contested election in 18 years resulted in the certification of William Adams as president, Robert Olvera as vice president (mainland), Wesley Furtado as vice president (Hawaii), and Edwin Ferris as secretary-treasurer. The ILWU membership this summer voted by mail ballot for Adams over Ray Familathe, but the results were disputed over alleged discrepancies involving the ballots that were cast by the Panama affiliate. The review process took almost two months to complete before the international executive board certified the results Tuesday.
Adams, who was raised in Kansas City, worked as a longshoreman in Tacoma before being elected ILWU secretary-treasurer in 2003. He is the first African-American to serve as president of the union. Adams also serves as vice president of the San Francisco Port Commission. Adams said he and the ILWU team are “ready to meet the political and economic challenges ahead by involving our rank-and-file membership to help working families in our union and communities.”
Pivotal time for ILWU
The new team assumes office at a pivotal time in the 84-year-old union. The ILWU engaged in work stoppages, which were met with retaliation by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), during the 2002 and 2014-2015 contract negotiations. The lengthy periods of gridlock following the labor actions tarnished the image of West Coast ports as a reliable gateway for the booming US trade with Asia. The largest US trade lane is served in the trans-Pacific via West Coast ports and through East and Gulf coast ports via all-water services from Asia. The West Coast since 2002 has experienced a 12-point loss of market share of US imports from Asia, from 79 percent to 67 percent, accoridng to PIERS, a JOC.com sister product.
Vowing to stem the loss of market share and rebuild the reputation of West Coast ports, PMA president James McKenna and then ILWU P\president Robert McEllrath in 2017 successfully led negotiations to extend the existing contract for five years to July 1, 2022. McEllrath stepped down this year after reaching the union’s mandatory retirement age of 65. Earlier this year, the International Longshoremen’s Association and United states Maritime Alliance signaled their intention to maintain the bicoastal battle for market share by extending their contract to 2024.
The extended period of labor peace will give employers and longshore labor at US ports some breathing room to concentrate on the productivity improvements that are necessary to handle the multiple challenges they face in working mega-ships with capacities of 10,000-14,000 TEU capacity. Vessels of that size regularly call at both coasts now since the expansion of the Panama Canal in 2016 and the raising of the Bayonne Bridge in New York-New Jersey last year. Container exchanges in the largest ports can top 10,000 in a single vessel call, resulting in longer vessel times at berth, congested container yards, equipment shortages, and longer truck turn times that create costly bottlenecks in international supply chains.
The ILWU represents 50,000 workers in longshore and other occupations in California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Alaska, Canada, and Panama. The ILWU prides itself on having a long tradition of militancy to protect the rights of workers. “Our team intends to carry forward the ILWU’s progressive tradition into the 21st century,” Adams said.
Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo.