Dockworkers and Panama Canal pilots unions form alliance

The union representing West Coast dockworkers has formed an alliance with pilots who guide ships through the Panama Canal, a link-up that could boost the bargaining power of both unions.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union represents workers in the U.S. and Canada, including 50,000 longshore and other workers on the West Coast. The union has been concerned about the potential loss of cargo, jobs and collective bargaining power that could occur when the Panama Canal expansion opens in 2014.

The affiliation between the two unions strengthens labor’s hand because the two organizations would honor each other’s job actions, the unions said.

Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor specializing in labor issues, described the alliance as “a ‘wow’ moment” that could greatly increase the collective bargaining power of both unions.


“There has been a lot of talk about unions needing to have a much more global vision,” he said. “This is one of the few times that the talk has been put into action.”

ILWU International President Bob McEllrath said the affiliation “will provide a new level of strength and unity for workers in both organizations.”

“Our goal is to hold global companies more accountable to workers and their communities,” he said.

Londor Rankin, who serves as secretary general of the Panama Canal Pilots Union, said his group voted “overwhelmingly” in favor of creating a formal relationship with the San Francisco-based dockworkers union.


“We will learn from the dockworkers and they will learn from us, and we will mutually support each other,” Rankin said. “The companies that move cargo are global. We must have the same kinds of alliances and connections.”

The 250-member pilots union represents a profession as old as the maritime industry itself. Pilots are the short-haul navigation experts who usually take control of ships from their sea captains to negotiate the local harbor routes that lead vessels to dock and then back out to sea.

But the Panama pilots have a different task. They negotiate the grueling 12-hour, 48-mile canal route that links the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.

Some inside the dockworkers union have been pressing privately for early talks on its next labor contract with the Pacific Maritime Assn., the negotiating body that represents some of the world’s largest ocean cargo lines and terminal operators.


The thought was that West Coast dockworkers needed the next contract in hand early to persuade port customers to continue moving cargo through West Coast ports rather than using the widened Panama Canal to head to East Coast harbors.

The current labor contract expires 2014, and no negotiations have been scheduled on a new contract. Officials from the Pacific Maritime Assn. didn’t return calls seeking comment Friday.

Meanwhile, the dockworkers union is locked in a dispute with a grain terminal operator at the Port of Longview in southern Washington state. The union has accused the operator of reneging on an agreement to hire union labor. The dispute erupted this summer into picket lines and the arrests of some union members.

Shaiken, the professor, said the new alliance wasn’t necessarily an escalation that would lead to more tensions between labor and management. It might help ensure that both sides negotiate in good faith, since neither would hold an upper hand in threatening to shift cargo or stop work.


“It could lead to improved relations rather than to more conflict,” Shaiken said.