ILA enraged by Maersk automation, storms out from negotiation


The prospect of disruption in the East Coast US ports has re-emerged with the International Longshoremen Union (ILA) pulling out of talks with the port employers’ organisation, USMX. The formal negotiations around an agreement to the labour ‘Master Contract’ were supposed to start on June 11, however, the union issued a statement on June 10, cancelling the talks.

The reason given by the ILA for the withdrawal was it had “discovered” that “APM Terminals and Maersk Line are utilizing an Auto Gate system, which autonomously processes trucks without ILA labor. This system, initially identified at the Port of Mobile, Alabama, is reportedly being used in other ports as well”. The union described this as “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.”

The union statement continued, asserting that “most of the problems the ILA is facing on the East and Gulf Coast all stem from APM Terminals and Maersk Line. Maersk Line has a track record of pushing automation. They started semi-automation in the Port of Hampton Roads, and have full automation at Pier 400 in Los Angeles, California. The ILA lost tens of thousands of jobs in the 1970s due to containerization, and APM and Maersk seem to be leading the charge to eliminate good, family-sustaining jobs right here in the U.S.”

The issue of automation of port operations is a particular concern of the ILA. It views it as a direct threat to the jobs of its members and it is keen to make prohibitions on automation technology a central part of the labour agreements it negotiates. However, it is hard to know if raising this issue at this time is a negotiating tactic by the ILA. Certainly, demanding that automation technology as simple as truck management systems be banned from US ports is an ambitious objective.

In theory, the talks need to resume quite quickly as the master contract expires on September 30. Any disruption to East Coast port operations would be a further problem for shipping lines struggling with the problems in the Red Sea and congestion in Asian ports. However, it is tempting to suggest that the latest development will not present an insuperable barrier to a deal being reached later in the year.  

The wider issue of automation however, is one that even the ILA may be overwhelmed by in the longer term. The whole logistics sector is slowly beginning to increase the level of robotics that it uses, although US ports may be slower to adapt.

Author: Thomas Cullen

Source: Ti Insight

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