BY RON BRINSON The past month has brought good news for the Port of Charleston. Business is better, the state legislature has guaranteed funding for the Charleston Harbor deepening to 50 feet, and the State Ports Authority has a progressive new capital investments plan.

And while all that good news stuff was being crafted, International Longshoremen’s Association union leaders and their employers’ representatives were organizing the mating dances of new master contract talks. The current agreement, covering shipping lines’ labor operations at East Coast, Gulf Coast and Great Lakes ports, was signed in 2004. Extended twice, it expires Sept. 30, and both sides agree a new contract is needed.

There have been no major ILA work stoppages since 1977, but expiring port labor agreements always create a certain anxiety. The hard bottom-line reality — a fall work stoppage at the Port of Charleston would be disastrous to the South Carolina economy — and to the nation, to the ocean carriers and their shippers, and to thousands of longshore workers. So it probably won’t happen, especially within a presidential election season.

Reports over the past week suggested “substantial progress” in negotiations. But just three weeks ago, ILA President Harold Daggett openly criticized employers’ position on threshold issues. The mere thought of longshore labor unrest is a logistics nightmare, and many shippers are making contingency plans. Vivid memories persist of the last major U.S. maritime work stoppage, the 2002 “lockout” of International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers at 29 West Coast ports.

That unpleasantness lasted 11 days and shredded a warm and fuzzy confidence in U.S. intermodal shipping patterns, especially on the West Coast. The Federal Reserve estimated that in the 10th day of the stoppage, the U.S. economy was taking a daily $2 billion hit. It was an unsettling experience for the maritime service industry and its customers — but it documented so well the strategic role of ports and longshoremen in sustaining the national economy.

When the ILA team gathers again later this month in Florida, Charleston’s Ken Riley, president of ILA Local 1422, will be near the head of the negotiating table. Riley has spent 40 years on the Charleston waterfront, rising through local and national union ranks — and graduating from the College of Charleston along the way. His views are pragmatic, his tone reasonable: “This business has changed and it is changing right in front of our eyes. We will fight for longshoremen jobs, especially here in Charleston, and we want to make sure the industry always works efficiently, too.”

Riley confirms that the hinge issue is jobs preservation in the advancing applications of technology and automation. “We have to get this right,” he says. “Automation is coming, technology is growing; the transition should be orderly without punishing workers.”

A half century ago, container ships brought skyrocketing expectations of efficiency factors up to 20 times greater than the traditional “heave-and-grunt” labor intensive cargo- handling methods. The real promise, though, was lower labor costs and fewer jobs — especially in the broad longshore ranks. Little wonder that longshore unions bargain hard for mitigation royalties, and Riley says that’s the broad objective in 2012.

Consider that an “automated” containership terminal in Rotterdam can decrease labor demand by 90 per cent. Robots do the work of many longshoremen, and terminal operations are generally controlled by technicians sitting with computers. At the Port of Long Beach, Orient Overseas Container Line recently signed a 40-year $4.8 billion lease for a “maximum automation” terminal yet to be built. The Port of Charleston’s current terminals are not likely to see dramatic shifts to automation, but the planned new terminal at North Charleston’s old navy base could be an ideal candidate for state-of-the-art automation.

The ILA issues list includes this long-standing demand that could alter the S.C. State Ports Authority’s terminal operations model: “All cargo handling work currently contracted out to port authorities must be ... performed by ILA-represented workers no later than January 1, 2014.”

If enacted, that change would likely eliminate the role of non-union public employees in terminal operations at state-owned facilities in South Carolina, Georgia and North Carolina. Riley says this demand “is a valid issue of jurisdiction ... that will certainly be discussed.” He sees the proposed change as a pathway to “further privatization” of state port operations at Charleston, Savannah and Wilmington.

For 50 years, longshoremen have adapted to the forces of automation and technology. There’s always a “new normal” for these workers and that usually means fewer of them. We are reminded that smart maritime industry planners are constantly reaching for ever-greater efficiencies. It’s what they do. But smart labor union leaders work to minimize and mitigate the impacts of such “efficiencies” on their workers. It’s what they do.

It’s a mating dance for sure — and very important to the local, state and national economy.

Ron Brinson, a North Charleston city councilman and former associate editor of this newspaper, served as president/CEO of the American Association of Port Authorities 1979-86, and president/CEO of the Port of New Orleans 1986-2002. He can be reached at rbrin1013@gmail.com.