An executive at the Port of Long Beach dismissed the possibility that dockworkers on the West Coast would engage in work slowdowns or other sympathy action if negotiations between the International Longshoremen's Association, which represents longshoremen on the East and Gulf coasts, and maritime employers on a new contract break down.
ILA leaders late last month began collective bargaining talks with representatives for container lines and stevedoring companies. The current contract expires Sept. 30.
Fears among transportation service providers and shippers that trade could be disrupted, as the peak shipping season hits its stride, escalated six weeks ago after ILA President Harold Daggett defiantly warned of a possible strike if the union's demands aren't met.
The ILA's top issue is the potential loss of jobs to new automated cargo handling processes. The ILA also wants to maintain jurisdiction over repair work on chassis and containers as carriers sell off or pool their chassis with third parties, and address overweight containers that threaten safety and royalty amounts.
"The ILA rank-and-file may recognize that they're leadership may be misguided in their rhetoric. The ILWU is fully cognizant of what's at risk. And I believe won't make that same mistake," Sean Strawbridge, managing director of trade relations and operations at the Port of Long Beach, said in a telephone interview.
A repeat of the 10-day lockout in 2002 of International Longshore and Warehouse Union members on the West Coast could derail the nation's weak economic recovery, especially if labor actions expanded nationwide and all international ocean cargo comes to a halt, experts say.
The lockout caused more than $10 billion in lost productivity, disrupted shipper's supply chains for weeks and contributed to West Coast ports losing almost 10 percent of their market share for containerized cargo to the East Coast as shippers embraced more all-water services.
The ILWU, especially in its six-year contract in 2008, has since taken a more accommodating position on the deployment of technology in ports as long as jobs to support the technology remain unionized.
ILWU President Robert McEllrath has said he backs Daggett's "effort to negotiate a fair contract" and pointed to the ILWU's history of solidarity with its brethren on the other side of the country, but there have been no indications at this early stage that the ILWU is prepared to join any potential work stoppage.
"The ILWU has been a great partner with industry in recognizing the need to be competitive here on the West Coast," Strawbridge said. "Labor and the ports don't want a repeat" of the 2002 setback, he added.
Strawbridge pointed to the $4.5 billion project to reconfigure and modernize container terminals in the Middle Harbor section of Long Beach as an example of the type of automation that is coming to the port.
Orient Overseas Container Line and its local stevedoring arm, Long Beach Container Terminal, plan to install semi-automated electric rail-mounted gantry cranes for moving containers within the yard and handling truck transfers. These and other technological advancements will greatly enhance productivity, he said.
Mark Jurisic, an officer for ILWU Local 13, said the union hasn't been informed by OOCL about what types of technology it plans for the Middle Harbor, but expects that talks on how to implement automated equipment into the operations will occur once the project nears completion in several years.
"But we made it clear that we’re not going to stand in the way of technology. That’s in our contract," Jurisic said. "We're willing to embrace it. We've just always said, the work is ours.
"Personally, I don’t foresee any problems from the Middle Harbor project. I think things should go smoothly." — Eric Kulisch