Tension elevated in West Coast labor contract negotiations

Monday January 5, 2015

Mark Graves / The Oregonian

West Coast labor negotiations between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union became significantly more hostile Friday when both sides accused each other of bad-faith labor tactics, which will likely worsen congestion already plaguing the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.



Although the parties did not state that a strike or a lockout was imminent, the mayors of Los Angeles and Long Beach immediately issued a joint statement asking the ILWU and the PMA to avoid escalating the conflict.



“Negotiations resume Monday and it’s in no one’s interest for either side to take further actions before then,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said in the statement.



“The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach play a critical role in our regional and national economy, and so those at the table bear a responsibility that extends far beyond the waterfront. The prudent course of action is to keep people working and keep goods moving as negotiations continue,” the statement continued.



On January 2, the PMA issued a statement accusing the ILWU of withholding qualified yard crane drivers from their shifts at the Southern California ports. The PMA said that the average number of shifts for qualified crane operators has dropped from an average of more than 110 per day to under 35 per day, resulting in tens of thousands of containers available for discharge sitting on the docks at the twin ports. Employers put in orders for the number of operators needed, and the PMA said the ILWU unilaterally cut back those orders by two-thirds.



In order to clear containers from terminal yards, the PMA said it is reducing the number of workers ordered to unload ships on night shifts to avoid the increased gridlock that the additional unloading of ships would create.



On December 31, the union received notice from the PMA that the number of nighttime work positions would be cut by two-thirds as of Jan. 2. Adán Ortega, spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 13 of Wilmington, said that the positions affected would include crane operators, drivers, signalmen and dock workers, and would last for an undetermined period of time. If terminal and shipping operators follow the association recommendations, he said it could take significantly longer for ships to be unloaded.



After seven-plus months of confidential negotiations regarding a new dockworker contract for workers at 29 West Coast ports, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association remain far from reaching an agreement on a new contract to replace the one that expired July 1.



Industry insiders report that cargo that usually takes two or three days to clear the ports has faced lag times of up to two weeks, with productivity at some harbors cut by at least half.



Two weeks ago the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents a group of firms that operate the West Coast ports, called for a federal arbitrator to step in to help resolve the contract dispute. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service acknowledged the request, but the White House has so far made no response to the plea.




“After seven months of negotiations, we remain far apart on many issues,” PMA spokesman Wade Gates said in a prepared statement. “At the same time, the union continues its slowdowns, walk-offs and other actions that are having impacts on shippers, truck drivers and other local workers – with no end in sight. It is clear that the parties need outside assistance to bridge the substantial gap between us.”



Last Monday, the union remained silent on outside intervention in negotiations but instead urged greater “direct participation” of shipping executives from the PMA’s 11-member board of directors.



“Both sides need the right people in the room to get things finalized,” union president and negotiating committee chairman Robert McEllrath said. “Indirect negotiations won’t get us over the finish line.”



The ILWU, which denies causing the bottlenecks, asserted that the shippers themselves were largely to blame for decisions that have disrupted port operations.



One of the primary problems is a shortage of tractor-trailer chassis, which occurred after shippers outsourced chassis supply and distribution to third-party leasing companies. Another major issue, union and port officials agree, has been the introduction of super-sized container vessels that are overwhelming the capacity of terminals to unload them.



Ports seriously affected by the cargo bottlenecks include Los Angeles and Long Beach, Oakland and Seattle-Tacoma.