Longshore workers, canal pilots forge international alliance

Earlier this month, members of the Panama Canal Pilots Union voted to affiliate with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union  in the US. “This is an historic agreement that unites workers in different countries with a critical link in the global supply chain,” said ILWU International  President Bob McEllrath. “We want to welcome these union brothers to the ILWU family and look forward to helping each other.”

“We are very proud to become part of the ILWU family,” said Captain Londor Rankin, Secretary General of the Pilots Union which has 250 members. Rankin said the pilots voted overwhelmingly to affiliate with the ILWU. He and other members of the union attended the ILWU’s International Executive Board meeting last week.

Rankin and McEllrath said that the global supply chain is evolving rapidly and that if supply chain workers like the pilots and longshoremen want to maintain and improve their standard of living, they need to form international alliances like the one between these two unions.

“We will learn from the dock workers and they will learn from us, and we will mutually support each other,” Rankin told the Los Angeles Times. “The companies that move cargo are global. We must have the same kinds of alliances and connections.”

“Our affiliation with the Panama Canal Pilots Union will provide a new level of strength and unity for workers in both organizations,” McEllrath said. “Our goal is to hold global companies more accountable to workers and their communities. With so many employers now going global, it’s critical for workers around the globe to join forces and work together.”

The alliances between the two unions comes about three years before the expansion of the Panama Canal is complete. The expansion will enable post-Panamax cargo ships, the world’s largest super cargo ships, to pass through the canal, opening it up as a route option for these ships departing from Asia with goods bound for the eastern half of the US.

Currently, post-Panamax ships from Asia unload at ports in Long Beach, California, Oakland, or Seattle and their goods are transferred to rail or track carriers for the eastward journey.

But transportation companies and the retailers they serve have complained that there are too many bottlenecks along this route. The US Department of Agriculture in a report on the impact that the Panama Canal expansion would have on the supply chain identified one of these bottlenecks as “labor problems.”

One of the labor problems that the USDA likely had in mind was the 2002 lockout of ILWU dock workers by the Pacific Maritime Association, which negotiates labor contracts with the ILWU for port authorities on the West Coast.

PMA in 2002 demanded concessions that would undermine safety and eliminate jobs. When the ILWU balked, PMA locked out the workers. The lockout lasted only ten days before then-President Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley law to end it because retailers like Walmart were complaining that the work stoppage was preventing imported goods from reaching their stores in time for the Christmas shopping season.

After the lockout failed to weaken the workers’ unity and was no longer a viable option for PMA, the two sides agreed to a contract that avoided most of the concessions that PMA demanded.

The expansion of the Panama Canal would provide an alternative route for goods in the event of another work stoppage. But having an ally working on the canal will give the ILWU some bargaining leverage that it might otherwise would have lost.

As for the pilots union, it has its own history of problems dealing with its management, the Panama Canal Administration. It took mediation to resolve a contract impasse in 2004 that lasted for years. Support from one of the US’s most powerful unions will increase its leverage as well.

ILWU has also been seeking alliances with other unions in Latin America. In a message to ILWU members in the September issue of the Dispatcher, the union’s newspaper, McEllrath said, “I want to salute the work being done by our longshore team to help the port workers in Costa Rica and Peru. . . . With so many of our employers going global and attacking dock workers in foreign ports, we can’t afford to sit back while companies try to crush other dock worker unions.”

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