U.S. maritime unions are drawing lessons from labor losses at an Australian port as the International Longshoremen's Association comes down to the wire in its dispute with terminal operating companies along the East and Gulf coasts.
Federal mediated talks between the ILA and negotiators for ocean carriers and terminal operators are scheduled to resume today. The current master contract expires at the end of the month.
One of the main sticking points in the talks is management's desire to automate more cargo handling at ports to increase efficiency as container volumes grow. ILA chief Harold Daggett has made clear that he will not agree to any technology enhancements that results in the displacement of workers. In July, the ILA and the U.S. Maritime Alliance reached an agreement in principle on how new technology would be introduced in the ports and on maintaining ILA jurisdiction over repairing container chassis, but the talks subsequently fell apart over other issues related to work rules that employers say make operations inefficient.
Last week waterfront labor organizations closed ranks around the ILA during a meeting in Washington
During the meeting, representatives of the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) suggested that Patrick Stevedores, a subsidiary of Australian rail and ports operator Asciano Ltd., deceived them about their intention to fully automate its terminal at Port Botany in Sydney, according to a news release from the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITWF).
Patrick is the largest publicly held ports operator in Australia. Asciano was split off from Australia's powerhouse logistics operator Toll Holdings in 2007.
Two months after Patrick reached agreement with the MUA on a long-term contract for dockworkers, Asciano announced a $348 million Australian ($278 million) plan to modernize and expand the Port Botany facility. The project, scheduled for completion in 2014, includes high-tech terminal handling equipment such as automated straddle carriers and will increase capacity from 1.15 million to 1.6 million TEUs. The company also said it is considering the use of automatic stacking cranes that would increase the terminal's annual capacity to 2.8 million TEUs, as warranted by future growth.
The introduction of automated container handling equipment would result in the elimination of 270 jobs, Asciano said in a July 18 statement.
On Sept. 3, Asciano said it signed a contract with Finland's Cargotec Corp. for 44 automated straddle carriers to be delivered by early 2014. The machines, which are able to roll over four-high stacks of containers, are used in high-volume operations to deliver containers to and from ship-to-shore cranes and the yard and between the yard and shuttle delivery trucks serving a port. One of the benefits of straddle carriers is the ability to lift two boxes at the same time.
Cargotec's AutoStrads operate unmanned, using radar and laser guidance technology to navigate the arched machines around the yard and load and unload boxes.
Asciano has been using the equipment at Port Brisbane since 2005 and says the system improves efficiency and safety. In the first year of automation in Brisbane, the number of accidents declined 75 percent. The number of accidents has declined 90 percent in subsequent years, it said.
In July, Cargotec said it acquired automation technology and 23 employees from Patrick Container Terminals, which co-developed automated straddle carrier technology with Cargotec.
MUA National Secretary Paddy Crumlin told the union delegates gathered in Washington that Patrick/Asciano made no mention during contract talks about the planned workforce reduction and the company insists it has the right to make the changes without any formal agreement with the union.
According to the ITWF news release, the delegates shared the consensus that a formal agreement between management and a union is necessary before any further automation can take place in workplaces covered by unions. It characterized unilateral moves to implement automation as "a form of union busting."
"We on the West Coast are concerned at the approach of the employers in Australia and the East Coast. This meeting was about coordinating our response to these challenges and sticking together. This meeting correctly identified automation without negotiation is union busting," Bob McEllrath, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said in the statement.
Asciano officials say their intent is to redeploy as many workers as possible to other available positions within the company.
"Where employees cannot be redeployed, in addition to generous agreed redundancy payments, we will provide comprehensive employee assistance and support programs including training, financial planning and career transition assistance,” Alistair Field, Asciano's director of container terminals and logistics, said in a statement.
Asciano Chief Executive Officer John Mullen said automation is critical for the company's growth strategy and to ensure its competitiveness ahead of the arrival of a third stevedoring company at Port Botany.
The contract negotiated between the MUA and Patrick/Asciano provides longshoremen a 22.5 percent wage increase over five years, or an average of 4.45 percent per year. Workers could also achieve a three-quarter percent bonus if the company's four container terminals meet volume and service performance goals. The company said the extra cost of wages would be offset by higher productivity at the terminals.
The MUA went to court Sept. 10 seeking an injunction that would prevent Patrick/Asciano from moving ahead with its plans for the automated straddle carriers before consulting with the union, according to The Australian
newspaper. - Eric Kulisch