WJ Editorial

Another Threat Of Longshore Strike

The threat of widespread strikes by longshore workers is rising again, and this time it’s on the East and Gulf coasts rather than the West Coast.

Contracts for the members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) are due to expire on September 30. However, the deadline for local contracts to be finalized so an overall master contract covering six years can be negotiated was May 17. The ILA represents about 45,000 dockworkers along the East and Gulf coasts at ports stretching from Maine to Texas.

For months, union members have been signaling their unhappiness about increased dock automation. Earlier this month, the ILA halted talks with the United States Maritime Alliance (USMX), a coalition of longshore industry employers. The union claims Maersk is using automated gate technology that doesn’t require dock labor at the Port of Mobile, Ala., in violation of an existing master contract. The union says it won’t resume talks until that issue is resolved.

ILA President Harold Daggett has said members would strike if a deal is not reached before the current contract expires. He has told locals at New York/New Jersey and Houston to be ready to strike on October 1, the union said. ILA members have not gone on strike since 1977, when a work stoppage lasted 44 days.

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A different union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), represents West Coast longshore workers. It was the ILWU whose strikes and no-shows shut down West Coast ports in 2023. Unlike the ILWU, ILA members make bonuses based on the amount of cargo their ports move, a feature that incentivizes them not to strike. The ILWU has pledged solidarity with the ILA, but it’s unknown if that would extend to a joint strike.

Longshore strikes are always expensive. They have the potential to disrupt supply chains, reshuffle cargo movements all over the country—including the inland waterways—and increase costs to shippers and consumers. When the ILWU struck at its Canadian West Coast Ports for 13 days, the work stoppage resulted in more than $12 billion in cargo stranded at sea. It took months for the backlog of containers to be cleared out. An ILA strike—if one happens—would hit directly in the middle of the harvest season, the peak time for barged grain moving to the Gulf.

There are months to go yet, and it’s not unusual for there to be what one logistics publication called “saber-rattling” during tense contract negotiations. However, another potential threat to cargo movements from California is still unresolved: its draconian harbor craft rule that threatens to remove commercial craft, including tugboats, from California waters if they do not install diesel particulate filters on marine engines. That technology is commercially unavailable, untested and a safety risk, and the Coast Guard has refused to examine or certify DPFs.

If worse comes to the worst and an ILA strike converges with California refusing to mitigate its damaging DPF rule, we could be looking at a nightmare scenario for cargo movements and logistics throughout the Marine Transportation System this fall and winter.