Automation expected to be the sticking point in negotiations when ILWU contracts expire in July

Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2021
Source: Splash 247

Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), working at US West Coast ports in Washington, Oregon and California, may be in a strong negotiating position next summer when their contract expires if cargo volumes remain strong and their service crucial. If so, they are expected to push hard to prevent further automation – and related job losses – at the ports.

According to a Bloomberg Law article published last month, ILWU membership has dropped from 37,000 in 2001 to 29,000 this year. At least some of that drop can be attributed to the impact of automation.

In previous negotiations, the ILWU made concessions to automation: In 2002, the union agreed to let terminal operators computerize some tasks of marine clerks. In 2008, it gave ports the right to bring in automated cranes.

The union’s stance, however, appears to have since hardened, even while members have benefitted from increased income paid by port employers for the right to automate.

Union members are likely to use pressure tactics, as they have in previous negotiations, that will slow down the flow of cargo, adding to congestion that experts predict will continue to be an issue in mid-2022.

Randy James, spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, broker for the ocean carriers and West Coast terminal operators, said recently: “ILWU longshore workers and West Coast ports have cooperated in meeting significant challenges and moving record amounts of cargo during the pandemic. With supply chain congestion expected to continue well into next year, we are hopeful this cooperation can extend to the contract negotiations to take place between the PMA and ILWU.”

The PMA also said in a statement that port technology is an “essential tool in moving cargo productively,” marking where the ports stand and indicating that a clash is coming.


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