Tug boat operators are a critical part of the operation of the Panama Canal.
The boats are used to guide the ships through the narrow Culebra Cut and into and out of the locks, keeping them properly aligned.
The 240 operators, however, are currently engaged in a dispute with the Panama Canal Authority (ACP) because they are seeking the creation of a trade union that will allow them to negotiate a collective agreement with the agency.
The situation is critical because tug boats will have an even greater role in operations once the new set of locks are opened. That's because, unlike the current locks which use locomotives to guide the ships through them, the new locks will rely on tugs to keep the boats positioned properly.
"We ensure safety in the Canal, and our role will be even more important with the new locks," said Francisco Crespo Mendez, secretary general of the tug boat operators organization UCOC.
The operators are concerned that they have not received the proper training to handle their new responsibilities.
The ACP, however, has countered that the crews have been trained on simulators, and there are plans to charter a container vessel to help them train for several months before the locks open in 2016.
Panamanian law allows the creation of trade unions within the Canal but prohibits strikes. UCOC leaders say that they will continue to struggle for the creation of an exclusive union because there are technical issues that affect them separately from other workers who have similar jobs.
This is not the first time they have sought union protections.
The tugboat operators previously belonged to another organization 10 years ago that applied for status as a trade union organization. That would have allowed them to discuss labor issues directly with the administration and not through other unions.
That attempt was rejected, which led to the creation of the UCOC, which was accepted by the Labor Relations Board.
The ACP, however, has maintained that only trade unions created before 1999 can be recognized by the agency. It has used prior decisions by the Supreme Court to justify that stance.
There are 12 existing unions that represent about 90 percent of the Canal's 9,900 workers.