Maritime & Trade Blog

ILWU unionization push threatens employer oversight of LA-LB terminals




This story originally published on JOC.com.

Longshore efforts underway in recent months to organize management superintendents at individual marine terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach, if successful, could allow the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to control the entire terminal without management oversight.

Terminal operators consider superintendents to be their public face for shipping, and they in effect supervise the union supervisors on the docks. If the management superintendents successfully guide longshore work habits and productivity at the terminals, there is a perception among terminals, beneficial cargo owners (BCOs), and carriers that cargo is moving efficiently, and longshoremen want to work at well-supervised terminals.

The ILWU views these developments much differently. Ray Familathe, ILWU international vice president (mainland), said Thursday there has been an “explosion” of management superintendents hired by terminal operators since the 2002 coastwide contract that began the process of computerization at West Coast ports. He said these superintendents are handling work created by technology that belongs to marine clerks. “They’re doing our work,” he said.

The superintendent organizing efforts come at a sensitive time in which the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the employers’ coastwide bargaining group, have moved forward on a possible extension of the coastwide contract from July 1, 2019, to July 1, 2022. However, the efforts in Southern California are not related to the contract extension. The ILWU rank and file are progressing with the coastwide voting process, and the results could be announced in August.   

Terminal operators fear that if all supervisory personnel at a terminal are ILWU members, the terminals will become commoditized, and the more productive terminals will lose their competitive edge in attracting cargo. Similarly, a major problem that shipping lines face today is that, in the eyes of many BCOs, container shipping is a commoditized industry in which the carriers’ services are all the same, so the lines can compete only on price.

The ILWU at West Coast ports represents cargo handlers, or general longshoremen, marine clerks, and union supervisors. At the supervisory level, the union members are classified as walking bosses (who supervise the general longshoremen), supercargoes (who supervise the marine clerks that handle documentation involving the ships), and chief clerks (who supervise all of the clerks).

Each terminal also has management superintendents who supervise the terminal’s activities on behalf of the terminal operating company. A press release posted on the PMA website states: “These superintendents are considered by the terminal to be members of management. They supervise various operations such as the discharge of cargo from each vessel, and in so doing supervise ILWU Local 94 walking bosses.”

In an interview Thursday, PMA president James McKenna said the organizing efforts by Local 63 in Southern California “came out of nowhere as far as employers are concerned.” He said the organizing efforts have focused on facilities operated by Pasha, APL/Eagle Marine, California United Terminals, Ports America Group/ITS, and Everport. Familathe added that at two of those terminals, Pasha and APL, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has certified the results and the terminals and Local 63 are negotiating contracts.

Although each of the 13 container terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach has a number of management superintendents assigned to various responsibilities at the terminals, Local 63 is targeting about four to eight superintendents at each facility, McKenna said. These “units” supervise work in specific locations, such as the ship-to-shore cranes, container yards, or on-dock rail.

The process that is unfolding is that Local 63 encourages the superintendents to sign pledge cards that are taken to the NLRB. Each employer has the right to present evidence to the NLRB to support its argument that these superintendents perform management work for the terminal and therefore can not be unionized. The NLRB then decides the matter, but its decision applies only to the bargaining unit at the individual terminal.

Familathe said Local 63 is pushing this issue so hard because of the proliferation of management superintendents that are now doing what should be ILWU work. In the 1980s, he said, each terminal had one management superintendent. Now, because of computerization, management superintendents are working in technology-related positions throughout the terminal, taking on tasks that the ILWU could handle if its members were properly trained to do the new work.   

In its press release, the PMA stated that any management superintendents that might officially become members of Local 63 would not fall under the coastwide ILWU-PMA contract. “As superintendents consider whether to be represented by Local 63, it is important for them to know that their compensation and benefit plans will be negotiated separately with each employer in separate collective bargaining units,” PMA stated. On the other hand, the union is promising the superintendents that their wages could increase as much as 80 percent if they join the ILWU, one employer said.

McKenna noted that in order to include in the coastwide contract each new bargaining unit contract that is reached, the PMA and the ILWU at the coast level must approve it. Familathe said that although that statement is accurate, neither entity has the authority to block any bargaining unit contract that is reached. It would simply be a contract between the individual terminal operator and the Local 63 bargaining unit at that facility.