Navigating Union Rules at the Port

Working at a port is dangerous, challenging work. To lessen some of the dangers, there are numerous rules intended to protect workers and improve efficiency. Unfortunately, many of these rules are complex and can be quite difficult to follow. Add that to the fact that there are numerous unions that represent various types of workers, and it’s often challenging to understand exactly who can do what and when. 

While they can be frustrating, most union rules are in place to protect workers as well as the interests of the businesses and individuals that use ports for shipping products and commodities around the globe. Navigating union rules at the port isn’t always easy, but by better understanding them and abiding by them, you can work safer and more efficiently. 

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What Are Labor Unions? 

Labor unions have a rich history in the United States and all around the world. They provide numerous benefits to workers, including higher wages, safer working conditions and better benefits. These organizations represent the rights of employees in many industries, including the global shipping industry. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) are the largest unions for longshoremen and dock workers. 

How Do Unions Work? 

Unions organize to represent the rights of workers. By organizing, they are able to represent members in matters like negotiating pay rates and benefits packages, addressing security issues and implementing practices that improve worker safety. Labor unions have much greater bargaining power than individual workers, so they are often able to have their demands met. They also have a large presence in political circles and can help shape the legislature that directly impacts the rights of workers. 

Unions work like democracies. Elections are held to choose the officers who ultimately make the decisions for millions of workers. This provides members with more power on the job. Local unions are locally-based groups of workers with a charter from a larger international or national union. 

Modern labor unions act as intermediaries between their members and the companies that employ them. In doing so, they provide workers with the power to negotiate for higher wages, improved working conditions and better benefits packages through collective bargaining. 

Union Rules at Ports

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At just about every port in the United States, you will find workers who are members of different unions. While the ILWU and the ILA are the most common labor unions for longshoremen, other workers in ports may belong to different unions. Heavy equipment operators, mechanics and other port workers all have unions that protect their rights. 

Each union has its own set of rules regarding what functions employees working in various positions can perform. Someone who is designated by the union to move massive shipping containers using a gantry crane may not be allowed to do something as seemingly simple as manually moving a custom corrugated box from one spot to another in a warehouse. Likewise, only workers with certain qualifications are allowed by union rules to operate machinery like forklifts–even if they already know how to do so. 

Union rules may seem a bit excessive at times, and they are sometimes a source of frustration for workers. They are in place for specific reasons, however, and compliance is mandatory. While unions help protect their members’ jobs, failure to comply with their rules can quickly put an end to one’s career. 

Understanding Union Rules

While you may not always agree with union rules, it’s important to understand them and abide by them. In ports, unions are responsible for the employment of nearly all of the workers. If you are interested in becoming a longshoreman, the only way to do so is by following the procedure set forth by the union or unions representing the port at which you want to work. 

In most cases, you will need to start off as a casual worker. To do this, you will need to visit the union’s hiring hall every day to find out if there is work available. Since you are not yet a member of the union, you will be given last priority when assignments are handed out. 

Eventually, the union will come to recognize you as a regular if you show up daily and complete your work successfully. While this still does not make you a member or earn you any of the benefits of membership, being a recognized casual worker means you will be given slightly higher priority than unrecognized casuals. 

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Expect to spend several years as a casual worker. During that time, do everything you can to learn about the union’s rules and how it operates. Make sure you understand and abide by the rules that impact your day-to-day functions at the port. 

After you have logged several thousand hours, you may apply for membership in the union. Spots are limited, though, and most unions only accept applications on rare occasions. If an opportunity arises to apply, don’t miss it. Submit your application on time, and you will be put into a drawing. If your application is chosen, you will have the opportunity to become a full-fledged union member. 

Once you are a member of the union, understanding the rules is extremely important. Read the materials provided to you by the union and attend meetings whenever possible. It is your responsibility to make yourself aware of any changes to rules or regulations that could affect your job. 

Unions play a huge rule in the operation of ports in the United States and around the world. They work to improve safety for the men and women working in this dangerous industry, and they take following the rules seriously. Whether you are a full-fledged union member or you are working toward becoming one, it is extremely important to understand and abide by the rules.