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The International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), the labour union that represents some 14,000 dockworkers across the US east and Gulf coast ports, plans to extend its sphere of influence following the conclusion of negotiations with the employers’ association, the US Maritime Alliance (USMX), on a new six-year master contract.
Talks between the two sides frequently descended into bitterness, with ILA president Harold Daggett and USMX chief executive James Capo occasionally communicating what seemed like open and personal attacks on each other through the pages of the press, and it required sustained intervention from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to stop negotiations breaking down and to reach an agreement.
Now that the dust has settled however, Mr Daggett has outlined ambitious plans to expand the ILA’s reach beyond the US.
“Our organising mission will go global. We will really make our union an international one like we’ve never seen before,” he said.
Perhaps it was the sight of US importers and exporters – on east, Gulf and Pacific coasts – reacting with such panic to the possibility of a prolonged strike that emboldened Mr Daggett to outline a new vision for the ILA and, by extension, its west coast counterpart, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
“This will be the new ILA,” Mr Daggett told the ILA’s executive committee in Tampa last week. “Out of our difficult negotiations on a new master contract, the ILA has come to understand how important it is for us to be strong in our structure, strong in our finances and strong to face the multitude of challenges that we’ll face in the future.”
A strike across the US east and Gulf coasts would have had wide-ranging ramifications through US supply chains and beyond. Shipping lines issued warnings that in the event of industrial action a $1,000 per teu congestion surcharge would have been applied across all ports in the US, possibly extending to alternative Canadian and Mexican gateways. This in turn led shippers to confront the impact on their operations – many American agricultural exporters feared that such a surcharge, let alone the financial effects of disrupted flows of inventory, would have completely destroyed the viability of their businesses, while some liner analysts believed that a surcharge would have been unlikely to cover the increased hike in container carriers’ expenses.
More than once, shipper organisations made direct calls on US president Barack Obama to personally intervene through the Taft-Hartley Act should action take place – all of which would have demonstrated to union leaders the enormous power that a strongly unionised dock labour force can hold.
This point was clearly not lost on Mr Daggett, or other union leaders in related industries in the US, for while the ILA-USMX negotiations were underway, the ILA, ILWU and several other unions representing pilots and other shipping roles formed the Maritime Labor Alliance.
However, it is beyond the shores of the US that the ILA is now looking to foment further links with other labour organisations, particularly as it found that its links with global bodies such as the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) had garnered it such support during its dispute with the USMX.
An ILA statement said: “As the ILA recognized it was negotiating against powerful foreign global shipping companies, the union’s negotiating position was strengthened by messages of solidarity it was receiving from the ITF and [others] and pledges of support from dockers’ unions from around the world.
“One of the most important goals of the new ILA steering committee will be to improve and strengthen the union’s organising efforts, both in the United States and globally.
“With the expansion of the Panama Canal expected to be completed next year, the ILA sees growth on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, but also at places like the Bahamas, Central America, Jamaica and other areas.”