skip to main text

Global News North American longshore labor talks span coast to coast

Registration dateMAR 30, 2023

Mark Szakonyi, Executive EditorMar 15, 2023, 2:15 PM EDT
Articles reproduced by permission of Journal of Commerce.

Mark Szakonyi, Executive Editor
Mar 15, 2023, 2:15 PM EDT
Articles reproduced by permission of Journal of Commerce.

North American longshore labor talks span coast to coast Containerized trade in and out of North America cannot flow without unionized port workers. Photo credit: PedkoAnton / Shutterstock.com

By the second half of the year, barring any negotiating breakthroughs, there will be six port worker unions in contract talks with waterfront employers, their turf stretching across the North American West Coast and US East and Gulf coasts.

There’s no grand labor conspiracy in the works, as the unions negotiate separately; longshore labor unions in North America have little history of coordinating to enhance their leverage, and the timing of the various contract expirations is purely coincidental. Yet, the rare occurrence, in which longshore labor talks across North America are taking place either simultaneously or nearly so, is enough to make shippers nervous, or at least wary. Containerized trade in and out of North America cannot flow without unionized port workers.

With a remit of Seattle to Southern California, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has been in formal talks with employers for more than 10 months. A joint statement in late February confirming both sides were negotiating and “hopeful” for a deal soon failed to give importers the assurance they were looking for as they hash out annual service contracts with trans-Pacific carriers.

That spells more bleeding of cargo away from the US West Coast, even if disruption during contract talks has been minimal. In early February, both sides agreed to temporarily set aside a jurisdictional dispute involving Terminal 5 in Seattle. However, it’s unclear when the National Labor Relations Board will rule on the matter between the ILWU and the International Association of Machinists (IAM).

Separately, clerical workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are negotiating to replace a six-year contract expiring at the end of June. Talks between the ILWU’s Local 63 Office Clerical Unit and employers likely won’t conclude until the West Coast longshore workers have a deal, Stephen Berry, lead negotiator for the Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor Employers Association, told the Journal of Commerce. An eastern window With ILWU negotiations dragging on, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) sees an opportunity to work with East and Gulf coast employers to hammer out a new six-year deal ahead of the current contract’s expiration at the end of September 2024. But talks at the local and coastwide level have been paused, and no formal discussions are scheduled in the near term, according to sources familiar with negotiations.

Even so, ILA President Harold Daggett has expressed confidence in swiftly negotiating a 2024 contract with the US Maritime Alliance, similar to what the union did in 2018, but wage demands could delay an early settlement. At the local level, longshore and maritime employees are said to be looking into stricter policies regarding absenteeism. A multiyear deal could help solidify cargo shifting away from the US West Coast due to labor uncertainty there coupled with improved infrastructure along the East and Gulf coasts.

Time might be on the ILA’s side, given that the ILWU or IAM will likely appeal any decision from the anticipated NLRB ruling on jurisdiction at Terminal 5. That could tie up the courts for months, if not years. Across the border In British Columbia, negotiations between ILWU Canada and employers at the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert have just begun. In beginning formal talks in early March, both sides were still far apart on wages, according to two sources familiar with discussions. Based on past contract cycles, it could take 16 to 18 months to hammer out a deal.

The shadow of automation hangs over the talks due to the potential for automation at a planned mega terminal in Vancouver. As part of the existing contract deal that expires at the end of the month, the union and employers agreed to create a committee to address new automation, a salve following a 48-hour lockout in the spring of 2019 by employers.

But employers never activated the committee, and the prospect of automation at the $3 billion Robert Banks Terminal 2 seems to already have hit a nerve. In response to labor concerns, the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority said the new terminal’s operator would ultimately determine the level in which automation would be sought, if at all.

At Montreal, Canada’s second-busiest container port, employers and port workers will be under pressure to begin negotiating a new contract to replace the existing one expiring at the end of this year. The existing deal — forced into place via federal arbitration at the end of 2022 — has just one year left, given that the prior contract expired at the end of 2018 and the new one is retroactive.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees wants to be on call fewer than every 19 out of 21 days. Employers say a deal lasting at least five years would help reestablish labor certainty for importers and exporters not dependent on Montreal. Displeasure on the part of the union resulted in a series of strikes in the summer of 2020.

Labor and employers at Halifax, meanwhile, have been negotiating a contract to replace the three-year deal that originally expired at the end of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic and new rules from the Canadian federal government pertaining to hours of work without rest have slowed talks between employers and a council representing the three locals covering longshore, checkers, and gear repair maintenance workers, according to source close to discussions. Both sides have since invited federal mediation with the conciliation process extended to mid-April. Halifax’s last strike was in the late 1970s.

The contract for Port of Saint of John, meanwhile, which is enjoying growing volumes from a relatively low level, doesn't expire until the end of 2025.

Associate Editor Michael Angell and Senior Editor Bill Mongelluzzo contributed to this report.
· Contact Mark Szakonyi at mark.szakonyi@spglobal.com and follow him on Twitter: @markszakonyi.