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Automation expected to be the sticking point in negotiations when ILWU contracts expire in July

Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), working at US West Coast ports in Washington, Oregon and California, may be in a strong negotiating position next summer when their contract expires if cargo volumes remain strong and their service crucial. If so, they are expected to push hard to prevent further automation – and related job losses – at the ports.

According to a Bloomberg Law article published last month, ILWU membership has dropped from 37,000 in 2001 to 29,000 this year. At least some of that drop can be attributed to the impact of automation.

In previous negotiations, the ILWU made concessions to automation: In 2002, the union agreed to let terminal operators computerize some tasks of marine clerks. In 2008, it gave ports the right to bring in automated cranes.

The union’s stance, however, appears to have since hardened, even while members have benefitted from increased income paid by port employers for the right to automate.

Union members are likely to use pressure tactics, as they have in previous negotiations, that will slow down the flow of cargo, adding to congestion that experts predict will continue to be an issue in mid-2022.

Randy James, spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, broker for the ocean carriers and West Coast terminal operators, said recently: “ILWU longshore workers and West Coast ports have cooperated in meeting significant challenges and moving record amounts of cargo during the pandemic. With supply chain congestion expected to continue well into next year, we are hopeful this cooperation can extend to the contract negotiations to take place between the PMA and ILWU.”

The PMA also said in a statement that port technology is an “essential tool in moving cargo productively,” marking where the ports stand and indicating that a clash is coming.

Kim Biggar

Kim Biggar started writing in the supply chain sector in 2000, when she joined the Canadian Association of Supply Chain & Logistics Management. In 2004/2005, she was project manager for the Government of Canada-funded Canadian Logistics Skills Committee, which led to her 13-year role as communications manager of the Canadian Supply Chain Sector Council. A longtime freelance writer, Kim has contributed to publications including The Forwarder, 3PL Americas, The Shipper Advocate and Supply Chain Canada.


  1. International Longshore and Warehouse Union is about as international as the Word Series is global.

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