West Coast Labor Talks Breaking Down

West Coast Labor Talks Breaking Down

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents over 70 multinational ocean carriers and maritime companies in contract negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), accused the union Monday of initiating orchestrated slowdowns at the Pacific Northwest ports of Seattle and Tacoma, severely impacting many of the largest terminals during the peak holiday shipping season.

The two ports handle an estimated 16 percent of containerized cargo on the West Coast.

The alleged work actions come as PMA and ILWU the are in the sixth month of negotiations for a new contract covering  workers at 29 ports along the West Coast, from California to Washington. Initially, the PMA and ILWU set a goal of reaching a new agreement in July, but the two parties can’t even agree how many workers are covered by the agreement PMA consistently refers to 13,600 workers, but ILWU puts the number at 20,000.

“PMA’s media offensive is designed to smear the union and to deflect responsibility from a growing congestion problem that is plaguing major West Coast ports,” the ILWU said it its own press release late Tuesday.

Once the contract expired July 1, the parties agreed to continue negotiating in good faith, and to resolve their differences at the table. The PMA and ILWU specifically stated that they were mindful of the broader economic implications of these negotiations. PMA spokesman Wade Gates said ILWU reneged on its promise to continue normal operations at West Coast ports until an agreement could be reached.

“This is a bold-faced lie,” ILWU shot back Tuesday. “No such agreement was ever made, nor could it be made given the parties’ historic disagreement regarding the definition of “normal operations” – a disagreement that has been the subject of arbitrations for decades. PMA also falsely states that agreement to temporary contract extensions is standard practice.”

The ILWU work action initially targeted select terminals in Tacoma on Friday, Oct. 31, and expanded to more terminals in Tacoma and the Port of Seattle throughout the weekend, PMA stated. The slowdowns began within hours of the end of the latest negotiating session on a new coast wide contract.
The PMA has found that the slowdowns at these Pacific Northwest ports have resulted in terminal productivity being reduced by an average of 40 to 60 percent. For example, terminals that typically move 25-35 containers per hour were moving only 10-18, according to statistics compiled by PMA, which tracks historical productivity based on the number of containers moved per hour for each vessel at the same terminal.

After several days of crippled productivity, employers demanded that union leaders return to normal workplace practices, according to PMA. When the ILWU refused by continuing its severe slowdowns, employers were forced to begin sending workers home, paid for time worked, mid-shift on Sunday.

“In Tacoma, the ILWU is not filling orders for skilled workers, including straddle carrier operators who are critical to terminal operations,” said Gates. “This is like sending out a football team without the receivers or running backs. You can’t run the plays without them,” he said.

“We have been told that ILWU business agents sent the slowdown orders out late last week,” Gates added.
ILWU has refused to agree to a temporary contract extension – which it has agreed to during past negotiations – because such an extension would give both parties access to the well-established grievance procedure that has served the waterfront for decades, PMA said in its statement. Jointly appointed arbitrators have continually found slowdowns on the waterfront to be impermissible, but with no contract extension in place, employers cannot access the arbitration process.

“We are calling upon the ILWU to cease its slowdowns and agree to a temporary contract extension while we negotiate a new contract,” Gates said. “The Union’s agreement to a contract extension would give confidence to shippers and the general public, and would prove our willingness to solve our differences at the negotiating table, rather than by staging illegal actions at the docks.”

“The PMA remains committed to good-faith bargaining until an agreement can be reached,” Gates said. “It is extremely difficult to have meaningful negotiations under the current conditions in which the ILWU is deliberately slowing productivity in order to pressure our member companies. We urge the ILWU to re-think their slowdown strategy, which has the potential to cause great damage to the local, regional and national economies. It is essential that we resolve our differences at the negotiating table, rather than on the job site.”
ILWU conceded that delays at the negotiating table are contributing to the growing congestion problem at major West Coast ports.

“Congestion at key ports is the result of three factors – some of which is from employer mismanagement, according to industry experts,” said ILWU spokesperson Craig Merrilees. The three factors are:

  1. A change in the business model used to maintain and allocate truck chassis. The employer’s decision to change their business model is preventing chassis systems from being delivered to the right place at the right time. The Journal of Commerce reported on Oct. 10, “Chassis shortages and dislocations are believed to be the single biggest contributor to marine terminal congestion in Los Angeles-Long Beach.”
  2.  A shortage of truck drivers who are needed to move containers at ports has left shippers scrambling to fill vacant positions and haul containers to distribution facilities. On Oct. 13, the JOC quoted an industry insider who said, “Frustrated by port congestion, drayage drivers increasingly looking for other jobs – both in and out of trucking.”
  3.  A shortage of rail car capacity has led to delays in moving containers from the docks to distant locations via rail. On October 31, Progressive Railroading outlined the issue in an article titled “Rail-car backlog reached record level in 3Q.” Rail capacity has been stretched to the limit by additional shipments of crude oil.