Jimmy Monti, a stevedore at the sprawling Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, has seen economic booms and busts in his 24 years on the job. But the third-generation docker had never experienced anything like it in the past two years.
The onset of the pandemic in 2020 virtually paralyzed port activity. But in the summer of 2020, “the expedition reopened, and it was crazy, like a water tap that had dripped all of a sudden was running full blast.”
The increase has resulted in record amounts of cargo – 10.7 million containers passing through the Port of Los Angeles last year – as Americans shopped during the pandemic.
It has also led to unprecedented congestion, with more than 100 container ships anchored at sea in January as they waited for a quay to be unloaded. The back-up at ports, which handle about 40% of US imports, has become a symbol of supply chain issues that have contributed to higher inflation.
Now Monti and 22,000 other US West Coast port workers are in contract negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association, a group representing global shipping lines and terminal operators, such as Maersk, Cosco Shipping Lines and Evergreen Marine. . Stevedores are seeking a 10% wage increase and protection from automation in exchange for extended dock hours, according to academics who follow the industry. The workers say they deserve more money given their performance over the past two years.
“There was a lot of pressure to come to work day and night, to work faster and harder to deal with the overcrowding and congestion at the terminals,” Monti said.
Monti and his colleagues, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, say shipping companies can afford to be generous. With freight rates hitting record highs, companies including Maersk made total profits of more than $190 billion in 2021, more than 15 times their 2019 levels. full-time jobs are good, ranging from over $100,000 to over $130,000 a year, according to a recent study by the Economic Roundtable. Clerks, the highest paid group, earn more.
The contract expired on Friday, but both parties agreed to keep talking. “Although there is no contract extension, cargo will continue to move and normal operations will continue at the ports until an agreement can be reached,” the PMA and the ILWU in a joint statement, adding that they were “aware of the need to finalize a new coastal contract as soon as possible”.
Contract disputes between the ILWU and the PMA have disrupted the flow of goods in the past. In 2002, the George W Bush administration had to intervene after dockworkers were locked out by the PMA, costing the US economy an estimated $1 billion a day. In 2015, when the current deal was signed, the Obama administration stepped in to end a year-long contract fight.
While both sides say they want to avoid anything that would make supply chain problems worse, Jake Wilson, a sociology professor at California State University Long Beach, notes that work has been more assertive since the start of the pandemic. There have recently been high-profile union organizing efforts at Starbucks, Apple and Amazon.
“Over the past year and a half, we’ve seen a wave of strikes across the country,” Wilson said. “I really think this is a key moment for [dockworkers] to stick to their guns and make sure they protect those jobs.
Any slowdown in ports would be a blow to the Biden administration as it struggles to contain the highest rate of inflation in 40 years. Biden has worked to ease supply chain bottlenecks, including securing commitments to expand port hours.
Last month, the US president touted port improvements during a visit to Los Angeles, noting that there were 40% fewer shipping containers stacked at the docks compared to last fall. He also attacked shipping companies for raising freight rates during the pandemic.
The automation of high-paying jobs such as crane operator will likely be the focus of the remaining negotiations. Many Asian ports that ship to the United States are highly automated and operate nonstop, unlike the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which operate six days a week.
The ILWU argues that automation has already cost hundreds of port jobs, but shipping companies say it creates jobs by allowing ports to handle more cargo.
Christopher Tang, a professor at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, says the ILWU is seeking to block further automation at the Ports of Los Angeles, which already have two automated terminals.
“If you look at the ports of Rotterdam, Shanghai, the Middle East and Singapore, most of the cranes are automated,” he said. “Here we still use humans to do that, which is extremely inefficient and archaic. It’s really useless. It’s only for job protection.