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The U.S. Dockworker Unions: Their Purpose, History, and Impact on the U.S. Economy


The first modern longshoremen union dates back to 1864, when workers in the Port of New York came together to help improve working conditions. Back then the port was largely manned by immigrants who were working in terrible conditions for low wages. Today, almost 160 years later, unions have grown and become more organized, but their primary objectives remain the same: to ensure safe working conditions, reasonable hours, and competitive pay.

Current Dockworker Unions

There are currently two primary dockworker unions in the United States, one on the east coast and one on the west coast. The largest is the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA), with around 65,000 members and 200 local affiliates on the east coast.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has around 42,000 members in 60 local affiliates on the west coast. The ILWU primarily negotiates with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), an organization made up of 72 cargo carriers, terminal operators, and stevedores on the Pacific Coast. The goal of the PMA is to negotiate and administer labor agreements.

Recent Strikes and Slowdowns

Back in November of 2021, the ILWU declined an offer by the PMA to extend the current labor agreement until July 1, 2023. This extension is an attempt by PMA to avoid slowdowns to an already overburdened industry, keeping the shipping industry from hampering the country’s current attempts at economic recovery.

However, after multiple extensions, the ILWU now says that it’s time to negotiate a new contract. The last such negotiations were in 2014, and they resulted in nine months of slowdowns that ended when the White House intervened.

Given the current state of the shipping industry and supply chain challenges, a slow down at already delayed West Coast ports could be catastrophic for businesses and the nation’s (and the world’s) economic recovery. Contract negotiations are likely to resume this coming spring and will be focused on health and safety concerns as well as automation issues.

Impact of Strikes

The Port of Montreal strike in August of 2020 provides a good example of the impact that strikes can have, even at a single port. During that 12-day strike, ships were rerouted to other ports, adding to the existing congestion and delays.

The potential for disruption in the months ahead raises a number of questions for logistics and shipping companies, even as businesses are already looking at contingency plans to help address supply chain issues. For advice on how to navigate congested ports and to mitigate risks due to slowdowns or strikes, contact our team. We’re closely monitoring the situation and offer personalized solutions for our customers. Call us today to hear how we can make logistics easier for you.

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