As dockworker contract negotiations on the West Coast hang in the balance, employees at the bustling East Coast and Gulf Coast ports appear to be getting a head start on their own contract talks.
Unions representing dockworkers across 36 ports stretching from Maine to Texas have opened contract talks with their local employers nearly 18 months ahead of the current deal’s expiration date of Sept. 30, 2024, the Wall Street Journal first reported.
On Sept. 20, 2022, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), which represents 65,000 East Coast and Gulf Coast dockworkers, asked its local unions to meet with regional employer groups to begin the talks during a three-month stretch of mid-December 2022, January and February 2023, ILA chief of staff James McNamara confirmed.
Beyond that, no master contract talks between the ILA and the U.S. Maritime Alliance (USMX) have been scheduled, McNamara told Sourcing Journal. He previously said the aim was to resolve or identify local issues first before the ILA moves to negotiating a master agreement with the USMX.
The current collective bargaining agreement between the ILA and the USMX went into effect on Oct. 1, 2018, covering areas including wages, hours of work, staff utilization, employee training and container royalties among other working conditions.
The Shipping Association of New York and New Jersey, which represents ocean carriers and terminal operators at The Port of New York and New Jersey, is one of the major regional organizations in negotiations with the ILA. The employer group had no additional comment on the matter.
”We’re not doing this for practice, so the intention is to get it done,” John Nardi, president of the Shipping Association of New York and New Jersey, told The Wall Street Journal.
One of the road blocks on the East Coast involves the use of automated equipment at the ports—the same concern that the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) has raised on the West Coast because workers are concerned technology could supplant their jobs.
The ILA and its president, Harold Daggett, have long opposed the use of this equipment at ports.
“There shall be no fully automated terminals developed and no fully automated equipment used during the term of this Master Contract. The term ‘fully automated’ is defined as machinery/equipment devoid of human interaction,” states the current ILA/USMX contract. “There shall be no implementation of semi-automated equipment or technology/automation until both parties agree to workforce protections and staffing levels.”
In November, Daggett shared his thoughts on automation with an audience during a speech at the Annual Admiral of the Ocean Sea Award Dinner in Manhattan.
“I have a simple message for you: If you plan to sail ships without crews, don’t bring them to an ILA port,” Daggett said. “We ain’t working them.”
On the port and terminal side, operators want to boost efficiency and productivity through automation, especially at high-volume gateways that have limited future cargo capacities and have frustrated truckers who face lengthy delays before they can load and unload containers. Operators contend that job losses can be offset by reskilling and upskilling current workers to run automated systems, leading to increased pay and improved safety.
How the East Coast negotiations will play out remains to be seen, but if the talks end up anything like they have on the West Coast, then all parties may have to wait a while before a resolution is reached. Negotiations on the West Coast have been stalled since summer and the more than 22,000 members of the ILWU have been working without a contract since their previous agreement expired on July 1.
The threat of a West Coast strike and the constant congestion that has hampered its ports over the past two years have changed the fortunes of East Coast and Gulf Coast gateways.
The Port of New York and New Jersey held the title of the busiest port in the country for four straight months from August to November 2022. The hub closed out 2022 handling a record 9.5 million TEUs—beating its previous record set a year earlier in 2021 by 5.5 percent and marking the first time the East Coast’s busiest port cracked the 9 million TEU mark.
To put this into context, 2022 TEU at the N.Y./N.J. hub outpaced 2019 levels by 27 percent, illustrating just how much cargo volume has evolved during the pandemic and its aftermath. The port managed a 26-month-long streak of monthly record cargo high activity.
Top-trafficked southern U.S. ports like Port Houston and Georgia’s Port of Savannah have also benefited from shippers rerouting freight away from the West Coast.
Down in Texas, Port Houston saw a container movement increase 14 percent to 3.97 million TEUs. Port executives said these volumes were nearly double the numbers posted six years earlier in 2016, and more than 490,000 TEUs more than in 2021. Total tonnage was up 22 percent for the year, reaching 55 million tons, another new record for Houston.
And in Savannah, the Georgia Ports Authority handled a record-setting 5.9 million TEU worth of containerized cargo in 2022, 5 percent more than the year before. The Port of Savannah saw four of its top five months ever for container volume during 2022, with trade volumes peaked in August at 575,500 TEU, another all-time record.