Port of Wilmington workers find tough start to Enstructure era

The Port of Wilmington's finances may have stabilized under its new operator, Enstructure, but union laborers say there has been less work available in the first months. | SPOTLIGHT DELAWARE PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

This story was produced by Spotlight Delaware, a community-powered, collaborative, nonprofit newsroom covering the First State. Learn more at spotlightdelaware.org 

By  Karl Baker

Why Should Delaware Care?
The Port of Wilmington directly or indirectly supports thousands of well-paying blue-collar jobs in Delaware. A change in operator last year at the port renewed hopes that increased volume could bolster the port, but a difficult growing season and changing methods of shipping could threaten growth of unionized jobs.

Classie Harrison, a four-year veteran at the Port of Wilmington, arrived at her union hall at 7 a.m. Tuesday, hoping to secure a day of work following months of underemployment at the Delaware facility.  

Many of her fellow union members had heard that the port’s operating company, Enstructure, would need more than 60 warehouse workers for various jobs that day. It was a bigger-than-average daily request for this year’s disappointingly slow fruit season, many said. 


Still, it was a fraction of the workforce called up in past years when the Port of Wilmington would hire many hundreds to handle a flood of bananas, pineapples, grapes and mandarins arriving on ships in bulk.

Ultimately, Tuesday’s call up was not enough for Harrison to get work. By 8 a.m., she was among dozens of port workers with low union seniority contemplating what to do during another day without a job.  

Port of Wilmington Enstructure Delaware ILA International Longshoremen's Association
Members of the International Longshoremen’s Association wait on March 26, 2024, to see whether they will be needed for work at the Port of Wilmington. | SPOTLIGHT DELAWARE PHOTO BY KARL BAKER

For many, it meant mounting concerns over missed payments on car loans, mortgages, and utility bills – as well as worries over a foreboding October deadline when the union’s taxpayer-funded health insurance would be cut for those who don’t secure 700 hours of Port of Wilmington employment for the previous 12 months. 

“I probably should be looking for something else, but I’m trying to hold onto the health insurance for me and my son,” said Harrison, adding that she has secured work at the port about one day each week in recent months.

Harrison’s troubles highlight how operations have moved at a crawl during Enstructure’s first eight months since taking over management of the publicly owned Port of Wilmington from a subsidiary of the Emirati-based Gulftainer. 

State officials have cited a dismal fruit season in South America and Morocco. 

But, the workers’ troubles also appear exacerbated by an increasing shift to bringing fruit through the port in containers – rather than as bulk shipments. 

Harrison’s union local – one of four that make up the Port of Wilmington’s workforce  – is made up of more than 200 warehouse workers whose jobs historically have depended on tasks related to handling bulk goods. A handful of crane operators and mechanics also are members of the local. 

During an early March meeting of the Delaware government board that oversees the port, Enstructure executive Bayard Hogans said a transition toward containers started last year. But, it became more “drastic” during this fruit season, in part, because the Panama Canal gave priority to container ships after a drought reduced the number of allowable passages allowed through the corridor.

Hogans also noted that his company recently purchased new “container handling equipment to the tune of $4 million,” among other infrastructure upgrades.

Following the meeting, Delaware Secretary of State Jeffrey Bullock, who oversees the Port of Wilmington’s contracted lessee, said a transition to containers could mean less work for members of Harrison’s local, but argued that the droughts in Central and South America are the primary reasons for the current downturn.

Still, he contended that the port’s shift to more containerized cargo would open up year-round opportunities for the facility, and relieve it of a dependence on a fruit season that occurs only during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months.

“It’s a vulnerable place to be,” Bullock said. “What is it? A 12-week or so fruit season. It wasn’t the best situation.” 

Such comments have long sparked fear among members of Harrison’s embattled union – today called the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 2076. They also add to additional perceived pressures on the workers from the construction of a state-supported cold storage warehouse that will sit outside the gates of the Port of Wilmington in Claymont. 

Last year, officials from Georgia-based Agile Cold Storage, which received millions of dollars in state grants to support the construction of its $170 million project and hire 130 workers, said they intended to draw business from ports across the mid-Atlantic region. They do not intend to use ILA workers. 

In all, the current slowdown – as well as future challenges and past strife – has some port workers worrying that their storied, decades-old union local could be nearing its demise. 

“They want to take our jobs from us,” said Malik Davidum, who has worked for three decades within the Port of Wilmington warehouses. 

In a statement, an Enstructure spokesman reiterated that bulk shipments of fruit to the Port of Wilmington this season is “down significantly.” In addition to smaller harvests and a shift to containers, the spokesman attributed the decline to a “sudden drop” in shipping rates for containerized cargo.   

Still, the company does expect a near-term increase in business from cargo being redirected away from the Port of Baltimore, following the tragic collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge.

“We have handled cargos diverted from Baltimore and we remain ready to support the broader region’s critical international trade operations,” the spokesman said. 

The past strife 

The struggles facing Harrison’s union this fruit season adds to turbulence in past years when several members of her local claimed they were targets of a coordinated campaign of anti-worker maneuvers. 

In early 2020, several port employees alleged a local union leader had colluded with the port’s then-operator, GT USA Wilmington, to ignore official grievances. Later in the year, GT USA Wilmington fired two outspoken crane operators who had made complaints against the company and were members of the warehouse workers local. The company later pressed criminal theft charges against the crane operators, but they were later dropped. 

By early 2021, national union officials made a surprise decision to dissolve the warehouse workers’ local and reshuffle them into the three others that existed at the Port of Wilmington. As a consequence of the dissolution, the local’s lighting-rod president, Julius Cephas, was removed from leadership.

A year later, the workers signed a new collective bargaining agreement. But, many complained it was substandard – and coerced. 

Six workers described how a port union leader, Williams Ashe Jr., presented them with the proposed bargaining agreement shortly after Delaware officials had committed nearly $3 million to a union health insurance fund. They all recounted how Ashe told them they would only receive taxpayer-supported health care if they agreed to the contract. 

Months after the signing of the contract, the national port union leaders again decided to move the warehouse workers out of the disparate locals and back into one of their own.

In a letter sent to the workers in August 2022, the longshoremen’s union Secretary-Treasurer Stephen Knott said the previous inclusion of the warehouse workers into other locals at the Port of Wilmington had been ineffective and harmful. 

It was a surprising and dizzying series of events. And, it ultimately prompted several  workers to file legal challenges against the union and against the port.  

One was Deta Hill, who said in lawsuit that the collective bargaining agreement she had signed meant fewer benefits for herself and her coworkers.  

“All of our benefits from 2018 have been gone with the wind,” Hill said in the lawsuit filed against leadership at the ILA. 

Better under Gulftainer?

The developments over the past years are still fresh in the minds of Port of Wilmington’s warehouse workers. 

On Tuesday, while Harrison recounted her struggles, many at the union hall said they believed their problems were the culmination of what they claimed were years of union-busting attempts. 

Many also complained that after all the upheaval, their local still had not rid itself of a much-maligned seniority system that classifies certain, preferred workers as so-called As while others are Bs.   

Finally, some questioned aloud why Delaware officials are committing millions of dollars to the Port of Wilmington for the construction of a container terminal at Edgemoor, while they suffer from a crisis that threatens their very existence.  

In all, the conversation prompted some to pose an unlikely question: Was their situation better under the port’s previous embattled operator, Gulftainer? 

While the company failed to maintain equipment and angered many workers, at least it “kept us working,” Harrison said. 

“As soon as this new company, Enstructure, came, it’s like all the buildings got cleared out,” she added.