A seat at the table

"We regret that Gothenburg businesses and population is affected by the conflict in this way," Henrik Kristensen, APM Terminals
"We need to bring stakeholders together so our cargo owners have a better understanding of the situation," Chris Lytle, Port of Oakland
"Port authorities sometimes need to get the employers to wake up," Dr Kate Bronfenbrenner, Cornell University
Help: Gothenburg's labour situation
Help: Gothenburg's labour situation "cries out" for mediation by the port authority. Credit: APM Terminals
Many voices: Oakland hosts an all-stakeholder round table discussion every two to three months. Credit: Ingrid Taylar
Many voices: Oakland hosts an all-stakeholder round table discussion every two to three months. Credit: Ingrid Taylar

Port authorities can play a bigger role in labour mediation, finds Martin Rushmere

Dialogue and automation are dominating discussions on labour-management relations at ports, with both sides proclaiming that they want to talk calmly and sensibly but knowing that tensions will develop immediately when the topic of automation is raised.

Caught in the middle are port and local authorities. They have to answer to the surrounding communities to make sure that operations are as environmentally friendly as possible, make sure that the operations are as efficient and profitable as possible but also make sure that there are plenty of jobs available.

Landlord ports – the almost universal model in the US and a number of other industrial countries – are seen as perhaps the best off. Their twin aims are pushing for ever greener operations and getting maximum revenue from lessors and tenants. As one labour analyst puts it: "When there is uproar over limited job creation or too much traffic congestion, they can often put their hands in the air and say 'It's the fault of the terminal operators and tenants. We'll crack down on them'."

Employers in the form of terminal operators say that their money is paying for the ports to function and expect landlords to be on their side -- even more so if a terminal is owned by a shipping line.

And then there's the unions, who are inherently suspicious and hostile, assuming that everyone else opposes them.

Dr Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of labour education research at Cornell University, says port authorities can certainly get the process moving. "The port authorities sometimes need to get the employers to wake up. If the employers think that the unions are not fighting as hard as they might, they will not take them seriously." She says that US unions can have a tendency to cause problems "but they really sit down when they feel they are going to be heard".

"Safety is always at the forefront for the unions and employers may not always be aware of just how important it is," she adds.

Industry analysts view port authorities as often being caught between a rock and a hard place, but can play a bigger role in bringing the two sides together. One analyst uses the term 'gun shy' to describe their approach. "They know they are tackling the thorniest problem of all and so would rather do anything to avoid the issue."  

Oakland's approach

One port that has grasped the thorn is Oakland, California, which has led the way in mediating. Under executive director Chris Lytle a round table discussion is held every two to three months, with all groups dealing with the port invited to participate. At the core of the discussions is the port's belief – and that of many business interests involved – that hostility and distrust is partly because the two sides misunderstand each other's problems and ignorance of the facts often leads to acrimony. Port spokesman Mike Zampa says: "For importers and exporters the big priority is reliability of operations at the port and knowing they can count on gateways being available on the West Coast. For labour, the number one concern is safety on the job."

The port is not trumpeting an overwhelming success: "It's not working perfectly," says Mr Zampa (one dockworker union shift went on strike unexpectedly) but there has definitely been progress. The union supplied more marine clerks immediately when traffic ramped up, preventing congestion that has been common in recent years.

"The longshoremen have pulled out business cards at the meetings and asked shippers to contact them directly if there are problems," says Mr. Zampa. "There is definitely a sense of working together in the room."

Mr Lytle told the Transpacific Maritime conference in Los Angeles in March: "There's a lack of understanding about the current state of affairs. We need to bring stakeholders together so our cargo owners have a better understanding of the situation.” Oakland emphasises that it stays clear of getting involved in negotiations themselves and is there as a broker and mediator.

"There is still much more work to be done," says Mr Zampa. "We have got to be open and reliable for our customers."

Says a maritime analyst: "The trouble is that ports are always under pressure to do more, speed up operations, make things easier for business operations and get bigger. That's where the difficulties start to come in. A business promotion team goes abroad and bags a new customer or terminal operator and comes back full of good news.

"Sometimes unheard in the noise is the labour union saying, 'Excuse us, but where do we fit in?' And the union leaders are suspicious that the deal involves more automation and less labour."

And what works for one port or region could well fizzle out elsewhere. Oakland is part of a port network where dockworkers are all members of the same union – in some countries different unions vie for dominance and sometimes co-operation is lost.

Technology moves

For port authorities, there have been big strides in uniformity and co-operation through technology. SmartPort links Hamburg, Busan, Singapore, Shenzhen, Los Angeles, Felixstowe and Antwerp, with much talk of using the same working and technological platforms and information networks. One analyst points out, however, that there is very little mention of how the unions will co-operate, while the types of ownership, managerial and political administration vary greatly.

One example of an unnecessary gulf between management and union is shown in the dispute at Gothenburg. Henrik Kristensen, chief executive of APM Terminals, said in his public statement: "It is unfortunate and we regret that Gothenburg businesses and population is affected by the conflict in this way. Regrettably, it illustrates how unbalanced the conflict weapon is, in this case. APM Terminals has previously confirmed respect for union views on salaries, safety and execution of daily work, but initiating a strike based on trade union involvement beyond what is stated by law, is not acceptable."

For its part the SDU, the union working the terminal, says: "One of the core issues of the conflict is how APMT views the SDU, negotiations, and which workplace issues are subject to agreements. APMT has attempted to control who is permitted to represent the union during negotiations, has stopped the flow of information to SDU members, and has meddled in the union's internal structure. We view that as a serious intrusion in the fundamental function of the union."

An analyst says the situation "cries out" for mediation by the port authority, possibly on the basis of the Oakland model – with one side saying it is going strictly by the law and the other saying it is not being taken seriously enough.


Observers point out that there is no ideal template that can be used for ports to mediate throughout the world. Some of the difficulties and complications that await are:

  • Confusion between landlord and owner/operator ports. The latter are seen as being more willing to be conciliatory towards trade unions, but will move faster if there is a sudden threat to their bottom line;
  • The IMO Maritime Labour Convention. Some of the port states among the 73 signatories (80% of gross world tonnage) apply the seafarer principles to shore workers, others do not. The US is not a member and is sometimes vilified for this and told not to lecture others about labour deficiencies;
  • The huge gulf between conditions in industrial and developing countries. The treatment of dockworkers and unions in developing countries is abhorrent to western countries, and pressure on ports to improve conditions can be counterproductive, particularly if there is heavy central government political control of the port;
  • Overlapping international labour unions getting in each other's way, such as the AFL-CIO, International Transport Workers' Federation, and the International Dockworkers Council;
  • Dockworker unions that are part of a wider trade union and get sucked into arguments that have no relevance. Brazil's CONTTMAF covers ports and airports as well as general industry. A seafarers' dispute is now drawing in the dockworkers and industrial and commercial sectors, leaving some union members bewildered. The port authorities are seen as helpless and are best advised to stay out of the way, or make matters worse by getting involved.


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