SEPTEMBER 19, 2012 — A port labor dispute between the United States Maritime Alliance and the International Longshoremen's Association Labor Negotiations is now the subject of negotiations under the auspices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS).
Should those talks fail, a strike could hit 14 ports along the U.S. east and Gulf coasts. Today, the Strike Club warns that if the strike becomes a reality, it could be the precursor of further labor unrest, not only in the U.S. but elsewhere, with extremely damaging repercussions for shipowners and charterers.
The Strike Club is the leading market for the provision of insurance protection against delays in the marine trades. It currently insures some 4,000 ships for strikes and other delays, and 1,500 ships for war risks or loss of earnings. Ships under the flags of 84 states are entered in the club's three mutual classes.
The club notes that U.S. seafarers have now joined forces with longshoremen under a new partnership, the Maritime Labor Alliance, which has received a message of support from the International Transport Workers' Federation.
The imminent resumption of critical negotiations between employers and unions will involve a number of questions and demands which must be resolved before the end of this month when the current agreement expires, says the Strike Club.
Automation is a key issue. It was one of the original sticking points in the early negotiations and will again be high on the agenda. Ominously, the ITWF referred to "efforts to automate maritime workplaces."
"There is a message here for the whole shipping industry," said Bill Milligan, chief executive of the insurance mutual's manager,S.C. Management. "We are now witnessing the start of a robotic revolution as robots get cheaper and better at doing things, and this is leading to a big, long-term change in manufacturing processes. And this hi-tech revolution is spreading out from the factory floor to many other operations, including cargo handling and the way in which ports and terminals are equipped to operate – not to mention the specter of the fully automated ship in the not too distant future."
Mr. Milligan added: "There are huge social implications in the coming transition as automation could lead to much higher long-term unemployment. This threat has been with us for some time, of course, but the volatile situation in the U.S. ports dispute underlines the message that robotic automation is a game changer that cannot be ignored."