PMA’s McKenna: West Coast negotiation process isn’t sustainable

PMA’s McKenna: West Coast negotiation process isn’t sustainable
http://www.joc.com/port-news/longshoreman-labor/pacific-maritime-associa...’s-mckenna-west-coast-negotiation-process-isn’t-sustainable_20150515.html
Peter Tirschwell, Senior Director, Content, IHS Maritime and Trade | May 15, 2015 1:07PM EDT

NEW YORK — The leader of the management group that negotiates with West Coast longshoremen said this week that the negotiating process that yielded months of disruption through February is “not sustainable.”

Interviewed at the International Maritime Hall of Fame awards in New York on Wednesday, Pacific Maritime Association President James McKenna said “we absolutely do” need to do things differently to avoid the crippling disruption that caused untold losses to importers and exporters until a contract between the PMA and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union was agreed to on Feb. 20.

“What we’re doing now is not sustainable, not for the industry and not for the country,” McKenna told JOC.com. “Certainly I have to talk to my board and I have to talk to the industry itself, but we have to find a different way to get where we need to be with an agreement between the ILWU and the PMA.”

McKenna wouldn’t get specific on what he has in mind. Absent a change to the law governing longshore contract negotiations, such the suggestion to put the longshoremen under the federal Railway Labor Act. That route is seen as tougher in responding to instances of labor disruption in the interests of the national economy.

Last December David Adam, who head the PMA’s counterpart on the East Coast, the United States Maritime Alliance, Ltd. or USMX, similarly suggested that a new way be found to conduct longshore labor negotiations. “The process, to me, is not working,” USMX CEO David Adam told the JOC’s Port Performance conference. “It’s old, it’s decrepit, and it really needs to be reviewed.”

Adam’s suggestion was immediately shot down by International Longshoremen’s Association president Harold Daggett, who told JOC.com: “The answer is no. We’re going to continue to negotiate the way we negotiate now.”

However the USMX and ILA did agree to open discussions about a new, long-term contract more than three years before their current East and Gulf Coast labor agreement expires on Sept. 30, 2018 — a tacit acknowledgement that of the uncertainty surrounding longshore negotiations.

McKenna on Wednesday used similar language to describe a system that many believe is broken due to the disruption and uncertainty it creates on a national scale due to nothing more than the vicissitudes of a traditional union-management negotiation.

“Both parties have to realize how times have changed and takes steps to correct it, and one of the biggest steps will be to change the way that we negotiate and actually consumate a contract,” McKenna said. He further suggested that any solution encompass both East and West coasts.

“I think it has to be both coasts. If we do anything that’s a significant change, we can’t say the west coast is one way and the east coast is something else. It has to be a combined effort to do something that works for the industry and the country,” he said.

How viable the prospect is of putting the longshoremen under the Railway Labor Act is a subject of considerable debate. Some see it as a panacea, given the law’s focus on industries like railroads and airlines, which, like seaports, have national economic significance. But others say that politically it’s a waste of time.

“The Railway Labor Act would require an act of Congress to expand the jurisdiction to include longshoremen,” Peter Friedmann, the Washington D.C.-based executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition and a longtime participant in Washington policy debates regarding transportation issues. “Any amendment to the Railway Labor Act, whether it’s regarding longshoremen or anyone else, is such an incendiary topic in the labor movement and with the labor movement’s supporters on Capitol Hill, that I think it would be very difficult to take that battle forward and to actually achieve any change whatsoever.”

If there is a significant change in thinking among members of Congress following the West Coast labor disruption it concerns expectations of the Federal Maritime Commission to get more involved in protecting the interests of American companies that ship goods internationally, Friedmann said.

“There are so many members of Congress now who realize they have constituents who are not involved in providing maritime services, but rather they are constituents who are consumers of maritime services," he said. "Members of Congress are going to expect that the Federal Maritime Commission sees its mission as protecting the consumers of maritime services just like the Consumer Product Safety Commission, just like the Federal Trade Commission.”

Contact Peter Tirschwell at peter.tirschwell@ihs.com and follow him on Twitter: @petertirschwell.