What began as the type of minor matter before the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners that would have been approved and instantly forgotten has mushroomed into a dispute that has shattered the facade of labor peace on the West Coast that followed a rare contract extension approved by dockworkers in 2017.
What makes the dispute — which involves plans by APM Terminals (APMT) to automate a portion of its Pier 400 terminal — so significant is how it has revealed the willingness of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to undermine through political means the rights of terminals to automate, a right their terminal operator employers were specifically granted in 2008 in return for higher wages and benefits amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars.
Under the terms of the 2008 ILWU contract — which union membership approved by a margin of greater than 80 percent and incorporated into subsequent agreements in 2015 and 2017 — terminals not only have the legal right to automate, but dockworkers agreed to “not interfere with implementation” of automation projects. Two terminals at Los Angeles-Long Beach, TraPac and Long Beach Container Terminal, took steps to automate following the 2008 agreement, with little objection from dockworkers.
But for reasons that remain somewhat unclear, the ILWU reacted differently to APM’s plans for Pier 400, which were far less extensive than the automation put in place at the other terminals. Thousands protested Los Angeles Harbor Commission meetings considering a construction permit for APMT to install charging stations so planned automated straddle carriers could be electrified. The union then took its protest to the Los Angeles City Council after the permit was initially approved by the port board.
Simultaneously, the union led an effort in the California State Legislature that would require a state agency to approve all automation projects on a case-by-case basis. Coming at a time of growing unease in California and society at large about the impact of automation on employment, the union has generated no shortage of sympathy from local businesses, politicians, and media.
A prelude to 2022?
But what is more worrisome about the how the dispute has evolved is the reality that the union’s actions may be just a prelude to something larger, an effort to actually unwind the automation provisions when the current contract comes up for renewal in 2022.
“If you start to un-negotiate things you have already negotiated, that is a slippery slope. That is a really big deal,” said an individual with knowledge of the union-management relationship.
Unlike during a six-month stretch of costly labor disruption up and down the US West Coast in 2014 and early 2015, which resulted from several smaller issues, including a leadership transition within the union, a clash over automation would represent labor and management coming to the bargaining table with starkly different — and possibly intractable — positions.
Insiders say the scenario would be more comparable to 2002, when an earlier clash over technology led to a 10-day lockout that ended only when President George W. Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act. Should the ILWU seek to restrict terminals’ right to automate in 2022 — as East Coast dockworkers did in 2018 — terminals will likely be unwilling to budge on the rights they paid for to the tune of $800 million in incremental wage and benefit increases during the period from 2008 through 2022. The terminals’ views will be influenced by decades of frustration with a lack of productivity improvement and now, after the APM ordeal, what they will likely see as the union being an unreliable negotiating partner if it is willing to turn to politicians to undo what they had agreed to contractually. On top of that, terminal operators in Southern California are facing a 2030 mandate to install zero-emission equipment at an estimated cost of $2.6 billion to $4.3 billion and will need to find ways to pay for it.
“Going forward, it [raises] the question as to how you negotiate a contract when the contract is as direct and unambiguous as anything, and yet this is a back door to undo something you agreed to and were compensated for,” the source said.
Inexplicable for many is how the union is seemingly unconcerned about how cargo interests view the dispute or evidence that it’s costing them cargo, in the form of steady market share erosion by US West Coast ports, which has resulted at least in part from repeated longshore labor disruption during contract negotiations going back to the 1990s.
West Coast import market share in laden containers has dropped from 57 percent to 48 percent since 2005, according to IHS Markit. During that time, the engine of growth at the fastest-growing North American ports such as Savannah, Houston, and Prince Rupert has been Asia imports, long the West Coast’s bread-and-butter cargo. Prince Rupert, a beneficiary of diversions from the US West Coast since its opening in 2007, completed a master plan earlier this year that envisions 6 to 7 million TEU of container capacity, a huge jump from the approximately 1 million TEU it handled in 2018, growth which in part will be driven by continued diversions from US ports.
It may be three years until 2022 when the current contract expires, but un-negotiations have already begun.