Maritime Labor Alliance Formed with Oct. 1 Dock Strike Looming

Bruce Vail

As anx­i­ety over the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a major U.S. dock strike ris­es, ship­ping unions here and abroad are respond­ing with a show of sol­i­dar­i­ty that could help the Inter­na­tion­al Longshoremen’s Asso­ci­a­tion (ILA) win its cur­rent war of nerves with water­front employers.

Meet­ing in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., last week, lead­ers of sev­er­al unions announced the for­ma­tion of a new Mar­itime Labor Alliance” to coor­di­nate the activ­i­ties of water­front unions in the Unit­ed States, and to broad­en that coop­er­a­tion in the inter­na­tion­al sphere.

The alliance brings under one roof the ILA, the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU), sev­er­al small­er ship­board unions, and the glob­al Inter­na­tion­al Trans­port Work­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion (ITF). Although the for­ma­tion of the umbrel­la group comes just two weeks ahead of an ILA strike dead­line, the alliance has been con­ceived as an ongo­ing effort that will con­tin­ue well beyond the res­o­lu­tion of the cur­rent ILA fight, labor sources say.

The idea for the Alliance was float­ed a cou­ple of months back by the ILA pres­i­dent when he spoke at the ILWU con­ven­tion in San Diego. The idea is to show more uni­ty than is nor­mal­ly the case. We all want to stand behind the ILA right now, but we also want the uni­ty to last,” says ILWU Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor Craig Merrilees 

Long-term plans aside, all eyes are now on the Oct. 1 dead­line of the ILA, which is nego­ti­at­ing a new con­tract with water­front employ­ers in East and Gulf Coast ports. Con­tract talks have been stalled, but are sched­uled to resume this week with the assis­tance of Fed­er­al Medi­a­tion and Con­cil­i­a­tion Ser­vice (FMCS), a gov­ern­ment agency cre­at­ed for the pur­pose of eas­ing tense labor rela­tions and avoid­ing strikes.

The involve­ment of FMCS reflects a ris­ing anx­i­ety that a strike is immi­nent, with poten­tial costs immense. A num­ber of influ­en­tial retail trade asso­ci­a­tions have raised the alarm that a ship­ping strike now might clog the annu­al flow of win­ter hol­i­day goods, under­min­ing the hol­i­day sales that many retail­ers count on for year-to-year profits.

Indeed, some busi­ness­es are already squeal­ing about increased costs. In a Sept. 17 state­ment, the Toy Indus­try Asso­ci­a­tion called on the ILA and employ­er group Unit­ed States Mar­itime Alliance (USMX) to set­tle a new con­tract now to avoid fur­ther ship­ping disruptions.

Sim­ply the threat of a strike has already caused ship­ping to slow due to equip­ment and space short­ages, and costs are on the rise as man­u­fac­tur­ers scram­ble to invest in devel­op­ment of alter­na­tive trans­port modes,” the toy group com­plained. Con­tain­er ship­ping lines have announced dra­mat­ic” increas­es in strike sur­charges that could amount to as much as $1,000 for each stan­dard 40-foot con­tain­er, the Toy Asso­ci­a­tion warned.

It is pre­cise­ly this kind of pres­sure that pro­vides lever­age for ILA Pres­i­dent Harold Daggett in his nego­ti­a­tions with USMX. Daggett, installed only last year as leader of the union, has not shied away from mil­i­tant lan­guage and appears keen­ly aware that the ILA is deal­ing from strength in the cur­rent negotiations.

Daggett’s hand is fur­ther strength­ened by the for­ma­tion of Mar­itime Labor Alliance. A press release from the group stat­ed that at its inau­gur­al meet­ing, the first order of busi­ness” was to review the ILA nego­ti­a­tions and pledge mutu­al support.”

Any sup­port from the oth­er mar­itime unions will be indi­rect, as fed­er­al law and exist­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments pre­clude sym­pa­thy strikes by the ILWU or oth­er Alliance members.

But indi­rect sup­port can be mean­ing­ful. For exam­ple, labor con­tracts signed by Alliance mem­bers Marine Engi­neers’ Ben­e­fi­cial Asso­ci­a­tion (MEBA), and Inter­na­tion­al Orga­ni­za­tion of Mas­ters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P) typ­i­cal­ly include pro­vi­sions that allow its mem­bers to hon­or any legal­ly con­sti­tut­ed pick­et line, includ­ing an ILA strike line. The ILWU, for its part, has been known in the past to allow expen­sive slow-downs of water­front work when labor-man­age­ment ten­sions are high. Though not tech­ni­cal­ly in com­pli­ance with the ILWU con­tract, such slow­downs can be effec­tive it re-start­ing stalled negotiations.

Despite the MLA’s ini­tial focus on the strike, Claus Luh­ta, Direc­tor of Gov­ern­ment Rela­tions for MM&P, says the tim­ing of the for­ma­tion is coin­ci­den­tal.”

This is some­thing that is need­ed because ship­ping is an inter­na­tion­al indus­try, and we need a uni­fied, inter­na­tion­al approach,” Luh­ta says.

Sim­i­lar­ly, ITF Pres­i­dent Pad­dy Crum­lin (who also serves as Nation­al Sec­re­tary of the Mar­itime Union of Aus­tralia) char­ac­ter­ized the for­ma­tion of Mar­itime Labor Alliance pri­mar­i­ly as a response to a glob­al prob­lem of automa­tion in water­front car­go handling.

Advances in tech­nol­o­gy have elim­i­nat­ed count­less water­front jobs around the world, and orga­nized labor needs a stronger and more coher­ent response, Crum­lin says, explain­ing, How automa­tion is intro­duced has been estab­lished as an issue for all inter­na­tion­al dock work­ers, their employ­ers and their share­hold­ers and customers.”

Crumlin’s state­ment is right on mes­sage for the ILA’s Daggett, who has insist­ed that the prob­lem with the cur­rent con­tract nego­ti­a­tion is not with wages and ben­e­fits, but job secu­ri­ty for ILA mem­bers. Although he has nev­er pub­licly spelled out the union’s con­tract demands, Daggett has made numer­ous pub­lic state­ments declar­ing that job secu­ri­ty is the key issue and that employ­ers must address the issue as part of a con­tract settlement.

Bruce Vail is a Bal­ti­more-based free­lance writer with decades of expe­ri­ence cov­er­ing labor and busi­ness sto­ries for news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Dai­ly Labor Report, cov­er­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing issues in a wide range of indus­tries, and a mar­itime indus­try reporter and edi­tor for the Jour­nal of Com­merce, serv­ing both in the newspaper’s New York City head­quar­ters and in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. bureau.
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