Containers are loaded onto the Eimskip container ship EF Ava at Portland's International Marine Terminal April 24. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)
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On April 24 around 2:15 p.m., the Eimskip container ship EF Ava docked in Portland harbor at the International Marine Terminal on Commercial Street. The vessel, registered in Portugal, is 426 feet long and can hold nearly 700 20-foot containers.

When a ship like EF Ava arrives, a 14-person crew of longshoremen is called to work over two days, or roughly 20 hours, to assist. This happens once a week, every week, and is continuing despite the coronavirus pandemic.

The longshoremen are members of Local 861, the Portland-based chapter of the International Longshoremen’s Association. They help dock the boat, unload its containers and load new ones, and move the containers around the yard, often onto trailers that truck the products to their final destination.

Eimskip cargo containers are stored beneath the Casco Bay Bridge at the International Marine Terminal in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

“If you look at the overall industry, shipping is going down – ports are seeing a 20 percent reduction (because of COVID-19),” said Jon Nass, chief executive of the Maine Port Authority, based at the IMT.

In Portland, however, volume has grown about 27 percent every year since 2013, according to Eimskip USA Executive Vice President Andrew Haines, and so far, this year is no exception.

Last year, the port handled more than 28,600 20-foot equivalent units of volume. Volume has still increased by 10 percent compared to this time last year, despite the pandemic, and has remained relatively steady in the past two months.

“The bookings are coming through and right now the volumes have remained somewhat constant. We haven’t seen any real impact,” Haines said in a phone interview Apr. 22. “We can see six weeks into the future volumes that are loading into Europe and the Baltics and bookings in Portland that will be coming in four weeks from now.”

Despite the loss of cruise ship arrivals, the Portland port’s size, location, and niche market have helped create a bubble that has so far protected its cargo business from being severely impacted by the worldwide shutdown of businesses.

“This could just be a wave and as the economy slows, maybe our volume will too, but we remain very certain that these ships will keep coming,” Nass said. “… But several months from now, we could see lulls in the business.”

With air freight less readily available and with the U.S-Canadian border closed to trucking for nonessential business, the container shipping business has proved a ready alternative for transporting goods from Maine to Iceland and northern Europe, and between here and Canada. 

“Frozen foods, fish, potatoes can now be put into refrigerated containers and can be moved probably more efficiently,” Haines said, adding that transporting fresh produce in refrigerated containers is a new practice that will likely continue after the pandemic subsides.

When that happens, Nass predicted that businesses will likely lean on warehousing, making use of a proposed cold storage facility on West Commercial Street near to the IMT.

“Some businesses have ceased production, and other companies have come to us and we’ve picked that up,” he said. “It seems to have balanced out.”

Stacks of cargo containers make a colorful display at the International Marine Terminal in Portland, where Icelandic shipping company Eimskip provides steady work for members of Local 861 of the International Longshoremen’s Association. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

Many products transferred in Portland are already essential commodities, such as food and pharmaceutical products. Lobster, scallops, and veterinary supplies are exported, while fish, bait for the fishing industry, and other foods are imported regularly. 

Without the pandemic, food-related cargo typically accounts for around 30 percent of container capacity. These days, food and medical-related products make up 55-70 percent of the cargo, according to Nass. 

“That’s why we’re doing every effort we can do to keep our supply chain running,” Haines said. “… For us, the operation continues to move.”

The tradeline runs exclusively between North America and northern Europe, whereas many larger ports trade internationally with Asia, and often support higher volumes of consumable products – hardware, toys, clothing – that are now suffering.

Nass said the port and port authority run as well as can be hoped in the current environment.

Longshoremen at work recently at Portland’s International Marine Terminal are dwarfed by the crane that moves cargo containers to and from the EF Ava. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

“There’s natural social distancing,” he said. “Generally you’re operating a piece of machinery. You don’t have to directly interact with people that much.”

Most IMT workers are now working from home, with strict scheduling rotations put into place several weeks ago for the skeleton crew that still operates the terminal on a daily basis. There are tighter social distancing practices and sanitization routines, and the crew working on the ground remains separated from the crew aboard the vessel, following U.S. Coast Guard orders. 

No one from Eimskip USA or the Maine Port Authority has been laid off because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We’ve made lots of changes to our health and safety guidelines, but it’s business as usual as best it can be,” Haines said. “But obviously, it’s not that usual.”

Cruise ship business suffers

While the container shipping industry has readjusted to a new normal with relative ease, the cruise ship industry, which provides roughly a third of the work for Local 861, remains tenuous. 

Typically, when a cruise ship docks in Portland, members of Local 861 arrive at their call time to tie up the ship, set up gangways, untie the ship, take down gangways, and provide any labor to take commodities on or off the ship. 

Approximately 100 ships would be expected to visit Portland during the six-month cruise ship season, and last year more than 500,000 passengers and 60,000 crew members arrived – a record for the city. This year’s season was slated to begin April 25 with the arrival of the MS Victory II, a small, 300-passenger ship.

But the administration of Gov. Janet Mills has said it does not expect it to be safe to accept cruise or commercial passenger ships with more than 50 people for the remainder of this summer, which would dramatically reduce work for longshoremen.

“As the situation is changing daily, it’s not possible to speculate on the impact at this time,” Dena Libner, assistant to City Manager Jon Jennings, said April 21. “We are coordinating closely with the state on this, however, and don’t anticipate allowing ships to dock for the next couple months at a minimum.”

Cargo containers stacked at the International Marine Terminal blend into Portland’s skyline last month. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

Although work availability for longshoremen in the cruise ship industry will dwindle, container shipping provides more reliable hours and more revenue for longshoremen, said Jack Humeniuk, president of Local 861.

The biggest impact, Humeniuk said, is the disruption of meeting in-person regularly at the monthly all-member meeting.

“Our operation right now is so predictable and so regular, it’s not really being impacted,” he said. “On the other hand, it’s a little more delicate because not being as big or well-financed (as larger ports on the East Coast), it doesn’t necessarily take as much to affect it.”

When the EF Ava entered the harbor, a 14-person crew was ready to dock and unload the boat. On top of the semi-permanent docking crew, seven full-time workers operate cranes, forklifts and reach stackers at the terminal; handle clerical work, and work as mechanics every day.

That’s work for about seven to 20 longshoremen at IMT on any given day, whereas when a cruise ship arrives, longshoremen are only scheduled to work that day or a several-day span.

While Humeniuk said he does not know if any ILA members have filed for unemployment in the past few months, he suspects that people who only rely on the local for part-time work have had to file.

Only a couple members of the local have not made themselves available to work out of concern for their health and COVID-19, he said.

Local 861, which has been around for more than 100 years, had thousands of members at its peak and faced extinction 40 years ago when the harbor didn’t have the infrastructure to support container shipping.

The union also persevered through the 1918 Spanish flu, Humeniuk noted.

“When you put both our operations together, you get multiple incomes for full-time workers,” he said. “It affects our employment and our contributions into our benefit funds for pensions, health care, and vacations.”

Local 861 also has financial surpluses that can support the membership if there’s a bad year, Humeniuk said.

While work availability at IMT remains steady, the effects of a limited cruise ship industry will become more apparent in time. For now, the longshoremen continue to work the yard, loading and unloading frozen fish and fresh produce, medical equipment, and veterinary supplies.

“I’ve been in the industry for many years and I’ve learned so much in the last six weeks,” Haines of Eimskip said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty ahead. Who knows what the future holds, but we’ve been quite surprised how well we and our customers have held up in these times.”

Freelance writer Jenny Ibsen lives in Portland.

Jack Humeniuk, president of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 861 in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

Portland longshoremen’s union keeps its head above water

It was 1976 and there was a worldwide demand for Maine potatoes. That January, 38 ships arrived in Searsport harbor to carry potatoes overseas, and a handful of vessels docked in Portland to pick up the surplus cargo. 

There were 125 members of International Longshoremen’s Association Local 861 tasked to haul hundreds of pounds of potatoes from the docks onto ships. 

“You’d get a pallet with about 50 bags at about 110 pounds and you had to put them down in the hull of the ship,” Portland longshoreman Jack Humeniuk, 70, current president of Local 861, said last month. “You’d lift them bag by bag. You’d stack them, and you’d build these layers that go 100 feet up to the top of the ship.”

Today, the longshoremen are still transporting potatoes through Portland harbor, but the technology has changed. Instead of relying purely on manual labor, overseas transportation has transitioned to container shipping – a hands-free, standardized and mechanized process. 

“The same longshoremen that 150 years ago would pull sacks out of the bellies of the ship are operating the equipment that’s lifting the containers full of potatoes,” Patrick Arnold, director of operations and business development for the Maine Port Authority, said March 4.

Although at its core the work remains the same, the union today has better workers’ rights, the technology has developed, and the knowledge required to be a longshoreman has advanced. 

“We have an international union, which gives us a lot of connections and reserve that we can rely on for legal advice and political and legislative clout,” Humeniuk said in a recent interview.

The ILA represents workers in ports from the Gulf Coast to Miami and up to Maine. 

Local 861 currently has 55 members, with ages ranging from 20s to 70s, 15 of whom consider the port their primary full-time job. Remaining members have second jobs, such as lobstering or carpentry, or work for employers that are flexible around the unpredictable schedules of longshoremen.

Immigrant origins

The earliest semblance of Local 861 was in 1880, when a largely Irish and Italian workforce pooled their resources to form a benevolent society. Local 861 was officially incorporated into the ILA in 1914, and by the end of World War I there were around 2,000 union members.

During World War II, 330,000 tons of cargo produced 211,000 hours of work, according to a 1968 report in the Maine Sunday Telegram.

Over the next two decades, however, the volume of cargo had dropped to about a third. Only 84,000 tons of cargo were reported in 1968, and the volume continued to decline for the next 50 years.

When Humeniuk joined the union in the mid-1970s, conditions were bleak.

The Maine State Pier was the only functioning terminal in the harbor, and Humeniuk made roughly $6 an hour.

“All docks along the waterfront were collapsing and rotting,” Humeniuk said. “There were still two cranes on the piers and they were collapsing into the water.”

Hundreds of Local 861 members would gather outside the pier at 7:30 in the morning, waiting to be called for work at 8 o’clock, Humeniuk recalled. 

A foreman would call names off a list to find workers to load and unload ships, and pick other workers at random until they found enough hands. Anyone who wasn’t chosen would leave, and might try again in the future.

“They would just start picking you to work, and if you worked good, they would pick you the next day,” Humeniuk recalled.

Although the potato influx provided some labor for the union, the port was not reaching the volume it once knew. There was little work, Humeniuk recalled, until the union was able to convince a small container company operating between Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Boston to come through Portland.

In 2008, the Ocean Gateway passenger terminal was built to handle cruise ships arriving in Portland, and in 2013, Iceland’s Eimskip joined as the only tenant at the International Marine Terminal, operated with the help of the Maine Port Authority.

“The union was always here, the union will be here, there’s a history of that,” Arnold said. “But it was the (MPA) that stepped in to be a catalyst for growth.”

Today, Local 861 contracts with two stevedoring companies, middlemen that connect the union to the shipping company. Two-thirds of Local 861’s work is for Eimskip, and the remaining third services the cruise industry.

Under a master contract between the United States Maritime Alliance and the ILA, longshoremen receive a base wage of $35 an hour, with paid holidays and conditions that include protection against fully automated terminals. 

Unions can negotiate additional benefits on top of the base contract, too. In Portland, Local 861 maintained its base wage, but compromised on work conditions to provide more flexibility and incentive for the shipping company to work with them. 

“The reason we have a lot of strong power (as a union) is because our relationship is more even economically with our employers than in most other industries,” Humeniuk said. “We’re employing more people, we provide better benefits and we have a more stable base of work than we have in 50 or 60 years,” Humeniuk said.

Since Eimskip arrived in 2013, Local 861 has enjoyed more stability than the union had in decades. It continues to thrive during a global pandemic by shifting its focus to accommodate more essential products.

In 2018, $416 million worth of products from 11 counties in Maine traveled through the port of Portland, according to Jon Nass, chief executive of the Maine Port Authority. The niche that the port now boasts is a short, transatlantic route with an emphasis on transporting Maine products and food products between here and northern Europe.

“We have potatoes here from Presque Isle every day,” Arnold said.

The days of manually slugging those potatoes, however, are long gone.

“We found a good company that Portland is the right size and place for them, and that’s what smaller ports have to do,” Humeniuk said. “We have to find just the right company that works for them.”

The strength of Local 861 is also in its members – a unified workforce that has fought for its rights for decades with the help of a nationwide coalition. 

“The whole industry is so completely different in terms of how we hire and the business we do,” Humeniuk said. “The shipping business is always fragile because a lot of the decisions are made far away (and) affected by things you have no control over. 

“You have to live with that,” he said, “but we’ve found a good niche now.”

— Jenny Ibsen