Pressure grows on ILWU dockworkers, port employers as labor talks begin

Pressure grows on ILWU dockworkers, port employers as labor talks begin

In this file photo from February 2015, a man in foreground talks on the phone in the San Pedro section of Los Angeles as cargo ships are anchored near the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. Seaports in the U.S. West Coast that were all but shut the prior because of a contract dispute between dockworkers and their employers. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
By Rachel Uranga, LA Daily News
Pressure is mounting on the dockworkers union and employers at U.S. ports to finish early contract negotiations and avoid a repeat of last year, when an impasse crippled West Coast cargo movement.

The heads of the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, however, showed no sign of coming closer to an agreement. The two sides met Tuesday in San Francisco for what was scheduled as a two-day discussion, but the second day was postponed, according to a joint statement.

Neither group would comment further on why the negotiations were cut short.

Meanwhile, nearly two dozen members of Congress signed a letter urging for a speedy resolution. “We simply cannot have a repeat of the 2014 contract expiration,” according to the letter, addressed to ILWU and PMA.

The 2014 and 2015 slowdown rippled through the nation’s economy, hurting retailers unable to stock shelves, produce farmers whose food rotted waiting at the docks and manufacturers who couldn’t fulfill orders. By some estimates, the slowdown cost the economy more than $7 billion.

“The impact was not simply limited to the West Coast, but was ultimately felt by communities across the country and the larger economy,” stated the letter signed by Ed Royce, R-Los Angeles; Jim Costa, D-Fresno; and David Valado, R-Hanford, among others, including supporters of a federal bill that would give governors the ability to seek an injunction to halt slowdowns.

Reps. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, whose district includes the Port of Long Beach, and Janice Hahn, D-San Pedro, whose district includes the Port of Los Angeles, weren’t aware of the letter, but both said they hope the union and employers get a contract soon.

“Since the last contract has been a good period of cooperation, I hope to see that continue into the future,” Lowenthal said.

A spokeswoman for Hahn, Elizabeth Odendahl, said Hahn is hopeful with talks starting early that “things will go well.”

The contentious slowdown hobbled movement of goods in and out of the port for months after the union’s contract expired in July 2014. The stalemate also damaged the reputation of the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach, considered the country’s gateway to Asia with 37 percent of all the nation’s imports coming in through the twin ports.

Both sides blamed the other for a near shutdown that came after negotiations broke down.

To avoid another confrontational stalemate, ILWU delegates representing 20,000 dockworkers at 29 ports voted in August to discuss a contract extension with their port employers.

ILWU and PMA agreed on the current contract in February 2015, but it is set to expire at the end of June 2019.

Union officials would not comment, but have said in the past that disagreements remain over unpaid medical insurance that must be resolved.

ILWU, PMA talk potential contract extension
Bill Mongelluzzo, Senior Editor | Nov 01, 2016 5:43PM EDT

Dockworkers on both US coasts are gingerly approaching the possibility of early contract extensions.
Negotiators for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association on Tuesday opened two days of talks on a possible extension of their coastwide contract. That sends a message to beneficial cargo owners across the country that there could be an extended period of labor peace at West Coast ports.

PMA President James McKenna said both parties intend to proceed cautiously. If they can agree to focus on a limited scope of issues, primarily wages and benefits, rather than reopening the entire contract that was negotiated in 2014 and 2015, there will be additional negotiating sessions, he said.

The current contract is set to expire on July 1, 2019. It was reached after nine months of difficult bargaining that began in May 2014 and ended with a tentative contract agreement that was reached on Feb. 20, 2015. The negotiations were marked by ILWU work slowdowns that began on Oct. 31, 2014, employer retaliation that began shortly after that, and involvement by US Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and US Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker. It was the worst congestion at West Coast since the 2002 contract negotiations.

McKenna and ILWU President Robert McEllrath told the JOC’s TPM Conference in Long Beach on March 1 neither side wanted to go through another round of contentious negotiations such as they had experienced the previous year. They indicated talks on a contract extension could take place this year.

Wages and benefits are generally not the most difficult issues in contract negotiations. Other matters such as ILWU jurisdiction and arbitration issues can be contentious, so the thinking is that if both sides agree to address only wages and benefits, they may be able to reach a contract extension.

Neither side has indicated how long the extension would be. A number of national organizations that represent BCOshave urged the ILWU and PMA to attempt to reach an agreement so they will have more certainty in planning their transportation supply chains to the end of this decade and beyond. At least 60 percent of the imports that enter West Coast ports continue on by rail and truck to the rest of the country, so planning for the handling of imports at distribution centers and for inland transportation requires reliable service.

Exports tend to be more captive to their regional ports. Nevertheless, agricultural commodities and refrigerated products are important exports, so if service at the ports is interrupted, exporters actually end up suffering more than importers because of the perishable nature of their products and the reality that they have few alternatives.

Officials of the International Longshoremen’s Association and the United States Maritime Alliance on the East Coast will be watching developments on the West Coast closely. They are also considering negotiations to extend their contract, which expires in September 2018, although they have not shown much movement in recent months. Jurisdictional issues appear to be slowing down progress in those talks.