On September 30, the current contract between the International Longshoremen’s Association – AFL-CIO (ILA) and United States Maritime Alliance (USMX) will expire. ILA represents the interests of its 14,500 members, while USMX represents the interests of its 43 members which are international ocean carriers, terminal operators and 14 ports along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast. West Coast ports and employees are represented by a separate Master Contract, and different organizations.

In 2011, some 110 million tonnes of import and export container cargos passed through those 14 ports providing employment for ILA members who received average hourly compensation of $50 before pension, healthcare and other benefits. USMX claims longshoremen earn more than twice as much as the average U.S. unionized hourly pay of US$23.19 and that, including all benefits, the average East Coast longshoreman earns US$124,138 per year.

The two parties have successfully negotiated contracts without suffering work interruptions since 1977, and there is hope that a continuation of this record may be accomplished. Negotiations started in March of this year. Not unlike other union contract negotiations, the focus of this year’s negotiations is on the balance between productivity and preservation of jobs. USMX’s goal is to protect the ports’ ability to compete in a global economy by increasing their capacity, to lower their cost structures, and to enhance safety. USMX wishes to address “restrictive and redundant work rules, manning practices and other cost impediments, some of which go back as far as the breakbulk days, and negatively impact our global competitive posture.” USMX recognizes that the widening of the Panama Canal will open up new opportunities to East Coast ports, but fears those opportunities could be undermined without productivity enhancements.

ILA’s objective is as expected to “protect the ILA’s members and their families from the impact of new technology.” ILA is also concerned about ocean carriers selling their chassis to leasing companies, and that union members will lose the repair and maintenance work previously carried out by them.

On the subject of safety, ILA claims that 14 of its members lost their lives due to workplace fatalities during the past year, and wishes to have all import containers weighed at the pier before being released, to ensure their weight does not exceed limitations imposed by regulations or physical equipment constraints. USMX considers the weighing of containers an unnecessary step which increases cost and lowers productivity, and advocates continued emphasis on drug and alcohol testing programs.

The next meeting between the parties has been set for July 18.