Back in 1934, the US saw what would become one of the most well-known dates in maritime history after six people died during a strike. Located in San Francisco, there had been no union in place for the workers on West Coast ports since the end of World War I. As a result, many started calling for a way in which the economy could grow (after the crippling depression in 1929) but while also addressing the needs of the workers. After the calls weren’t answered, this led to one of the largest strikes in working history; longshoremen were also supported by cooks and various other maritime workers.

Despite a particularly bloody Thursday, where six people died and dozens were arrested, it created a path towards what would become the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Just three years after the strike, the ILWU formed and the workers suddenly had a voice on a higher level. Today, longshoremen can earn salaries of over $100,000 and the whole industry thanks those brave maritime workers who fought for fairness and equality back in the 1930s.

Chassis Maintenance – Today, longshoremen face a different type of threat and it comes from the ever-growing presence of technology and automation. For around eight months back in 2014/2015, negotiations were intense between the Pacific Maritime Association and the ILWU. Why? The controversial topic of chassis management and repair.

For many years, chassis M&R work was an important part of the work done by ILWU mechanics. Suddenly, shipping lines were selling chassis to various equipment-leasing companies. With no affiliation or contractual obligations towards the ILWU, representatives were concerned that the M&R work would be outsourced thus resulting in severe consequences for thousands of longshoremen.

As summer approached, a five-year deal was finally signed between the two parties covering nearly 30% of all West Coast ports and 20,000 workers. In a move that rivaled the offensive in the 1960s and 1934, the ILWU actually kept most negotiating tactics under wraps from their own members. Although the deal did protect certain rights and systems for the workers, there were concessions too including new arbitration panels which meant the ILWU lost their hiring/firing control.

Overall, the reaction from members and the wider public has been somewhat negative ever since. For many, they believe the concessions made in order to keep salary levels where they are were damaging to working conditions. With less control over their own labor and a future with fewer workers, it proved to be a huge hit for ILWU and one that seems to be undoing the work of the generations who’ve been and gone.

The Future – Currently, it’s fair to say automation is still in the early stages but this agreed deal could be worrying signs for the maritime industry. Back in the day, the ILWU was seen as one of the most powerful unions across the United States but the concessions in the agreement were a sorry sight in contrast. For many, they believe the concessions made today will only lead to even greater concessions tomorrow.

Furthermore, it also raises the question of how much automation is too much? Will we start to become complacent by placing all our trust into automation? Will we push so hard that maintaining employment becomes almost impossible across the industry? Sadly, only time will tell but we certainly need to get back on the path created by the 1934 strikers if longshoremen are to be saved in the coming decades!


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