US ports union suspends labour talks with strike risk looming

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US ports union suspends labour talks with strike risk looming

The International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) has suspended negotiations over a new labour contract with the United States Maritime Alliance (USMX).

The ILA, which represents 85,000 union workers at East Coast and Gulf Coast ports, said in a released statement that talks regarding a new labour deal were cancelled upon discovering that automated technology was employed by APM Terminals (APMT) and Maersk to process trucks at port terminals without union labour.

The ILA initially identified the use of an ‘auto-gate’ system at the Port of Mobile, Alabama, but indicated that the technology is being employed in other ports, reported CNBC.

In a strongly worded statement, ILA President, Harold J. Dagget said: “This is another example of USMX members unilaterally circumventing our coast-wide Master Contract. This is a clear violation of our agreement with USMX, and we will not tolerate it any longer.

“There’s no point trying to negotiate a new agreement with USMX when one of its major companies continues to violate our current agreement with the sole aim of eliminating ILA jobs through automation.”

According to CNBC, a Maersk spokesman has refuted the charges noted in the ILA’s released statement. The spokesman reported that APMT remains “in full compliance with the ILA/USMX Master Contract”.

“We are disappointed that the ILA has chosen to make selected details of ongoing negotiations public in an effort to create additional leverage for their other demands. We will continue to engage with all stakeholders, including the ILA, to address their concerns,” Maersk’s spokesman continued.

As indicated in its release, the ILA will not meet with USMX until the auto-gate issue is alleviated.

READ: CMA CGM alters routes due to strikes in Finland

According to CNBC, the master contract between the ILA and the USMX, which represents terminal operators and ocean carriers, is set to expire on 30 September. The union had set 17 May as the initial cutoff date for the local contracts to be agreed so that an overall contract can be negotiated. However, according to the union, the decision to stop talks came from issues pertaining to the “ongoing negotiations of local agreements under the coast-wide Master Contract”.  

Last July, Daggett, the union’s lead negotiator, expressed his goal of securing a favourable economic deal for his members. This included opposing port automation and ensuring exclusive contracts for union members. In a speech addressed to union members, he promised that the ILA would not be sidelined by anyone.

“It’s time for foreign companies like Maersk and MSC to realise that you need us as much as we need you,” he said.

Despite a fairly positive track record between the two associations of allowing concessions and reaching agreements, the concern for strikes is more palpable now than ever before. This is of particular concern as more cargo orders for the peak shipping season begin to shift back to West Coast ports, reported CNBC.

READ: Canada’s West Coast port strikes end with tentative agreement

Freight processing was disrupted by international labour slowdowns and strikes during the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) contract negotiations between 2022 and 2023. A 13-day strike at the ILWU Canadian West Coast Ports left over $12 billion in trade stranded at sea, and it took several months to clear the backlog of containers, reported CNBC. More notably, the situation triggered a shift in trade flow, with cargo being redirected to East Coast ports to avoid labour disputes.

CNBC, however, reported that according to port insiders, ILA is targeting an increase larger than the 32 per cent that the ILWU had negotiated for its new six-year deal.

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