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Journal of Commerce
Monday, March 17, 2008
Joseph Bonney

Clyde Fitzgerald still has a copy of a 2000 Journal of Commerce report on a nascent campaign by the Inter-national Longshoremen's Association to regain breakbulk work lost to non-ILA competitors in Gulf and South Atlantic ports. The article said the campaign would be "a difficult sell."

Fitzgerald, who heads the ILA's South Atlantic and Gulf District, says the story was accurate - the union hasn't had an easy time clawing back its market share. But he says that despite the difficulty, the ILA has succeeded in turning the tide against nonunion competitors.

"We've been able to prevent further non-ILA incursions and even regain some of the work that we'd lost," Fitzgerald said. He reports that the ILA's share of breakbulk cargo is up throughout most of his district's territory, which extends from North Carolina to Texas.

Morehead City, N.C., a port where the union had been struggling to survive, now is solidly ILA. Fitzgerald said the union's man-hours worked are up at other ports along the South Atlantic and in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi. New Orleans remains in a post-Katrina slump that has affected union and nonunion cargo alike, but the ILA's position has strengthened in West Gulf ports.

What happened? "We leveled the playing field," Fitzgerald said. To compete with cheaper non-ILA operators, the union accepted lower wages and benefits and has worked to improve productivity through renewed emphasis on training and efficiency.

One important change has been to allow employers to assign ILA members to regular work gangs instead of reporting to a different job each day. Fitzgerald said the switch to a "dedicated work force" has improved production, reduced cargo damage, cut on-job injury rates and reduced workers' compensation claims. All of this allows waterfront employers to provide customers with competitive rates based on use of ILA labor.

In Houston, the ILA worked out an "attraction and retention" program with management's West Gulf Maritime Association in the 2003 contract negotiations. The program targeted breakbulk cargoes in Houston that were handled or were susceptible to handling by non-ILA competitors.

"It's been successful," said Walt Niemand, president of the West Gulf Maritime Association. ILA man-hours for cargo targeted by the program rose from 300,000 in 2003 to 1.3 million in the contract year ending in October 2006 and 1.2 million for the year ending in October 2007.

Niemand said that for all cargoes, including containers and breakbulk cargo not covered by the attraction-retention agreement, ILA man-hours in the West Gulf totaled about 5.5 million last year, compared with an estimated 1.5 million for non-ILA companies. The West Gulf region extends from Lake Charles, La., to Brownsville, Texas.

Nonunion stevedores and terminal operators remain a force in the region - Gulf Stream Marine, for example, continues to thrive in Houston and at Brownsville. "They're still there, and we know they're not going away," Fitzgerald said. "But we're getting our share."

ILA officials in the region understand that the shipper ultimately calls the shots on whether breakbulk cargo is handled by union or nonunion workers. "He's the one you've got to keep happy," Fitzgerald said. "You have to do him a good job because he's the one paying the bill."

Training is a big part of the ILA's pitch. New hires receive formal training not only on basic operations but on safety and on how and why the waterfront operates as it does. "We've come a long way from where we used to be, when a worker just showed up and learned how to pick things up," Niemand said.

The ILA and West Gulf Maritime Association are working with San Jacinto College in Houston on a program to train workers for waterfront jobs. New hires get a $2-an-hour increase in their $10 starting wage after they complete the program and work 300 hours.

Unlike ILA container-handling wages, which are uniform from Maine to Texas, breakbulk wages vary by port and commodity. Most hourly wages for breakbulk work in the region are around the $15 to $17 range, and Fitzgerald said many members now are working 50 to 60 hours a week.

When they build enough seniority, newer hires can graduate to container-handling work, which pays about twice as much. In the meantime, they're accumulating time toward the 1,300 hours a year they need to qualify for full benefits under the union's coastwide medical program.

Fitzgerald said he and his predecessor, Benny Holland, now the ILA's general vice president, worked to persuade the union rank and file of the need for changes. Fitzgerald said most members now agree with the initiatives. "Once they saw the work come back and the increase in man-hours," he said, "they realized it was the right thing to do."

Joseph Bonney can be contacted at jbonney@joc.com.