ILWU Contract Negotiations Suspended

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By all reports, the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) are still far away from reaching terms on a new master contract. And now negotiations are suspended.

Peter Tirschwell reports in the Journal of Commerce (JOC):

Contract negotiations between West Coast dockworkers and marine terminal employers — ongoing for more than five months — have been put on hold pending resolution of a hearing to determine jurisdiction of cold-ironing work at an SSA-run terminal at the Port of Seattle, sources tell

A couple months ago, contract negotiations stalled over this issue of union jurisdiction. The problem only appears to be getting worse.

The big issue most people were expecting to cause contention in the ILWU contract negotiations was automation. However, the union and employers won’t even get to that, nor the large (40%) wage increases the union reportedly initially demanded for dockworkers, until the parties get past this jurisdiction issue. However, this issue is actually related automation in a way.

The ILWU says they gave the PMA language for automation in the 2008 master contract under the understanding the PMA would back the union over others in jurisdictional disputes. If they weren’t already, the ILWU became very aggressive in going after jobs controlled by other unions after the 2008 agreement.

In the lead-up to and during the 2014-15 contract negotiations, the local chapter of the ILWU at the Port of Portland hard-timed the port so much over two jobs always held by the Brotherhood of Electrical Workers that carriers stopped calling on the port with container ships.

Another union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) has jurisdiction on equipment maintenance and repair jobs at a terminal, T5, at the Port of Seattle. The ILWU wants the PMA to back it in the union’s jurisdiction fight to get those jobs. However, the PMA says it can’t do anything there because a court ruling has already been made in IAMAW’s favor.

Now, there’s a hearing on union jurisdiction over these cold-ironing jobs at the Port of Seattle that could turn out the same way the T5 jurisdiction ruling turned out.

It all adds up to the ILWU claiming the PMA hasn’t sufficiently backed the union on jurisdiction to have the right to automate. Not only are we talking about further automation but also what automation has already been done in recent years.

There’s a big disconnect here. The ports need automation to keep up with the amount of cargo that pours through the ports. The ILWU views automation as an existential threat where machines take jobs from people. The PMA has produced evidence that automation, as it increases efficiency and brings attracts more business to terminals, creates more union work and jobs. The union rejects that evidence.

I wouldn’t want to have to arbitrate fights over the issue at the negotiation table.

Despite being 5+ months into contract negotiations already, there seems to be no one who expects agreement to be reached this year. Tirschwell writes in his JOC article:

The inability to get past the jurisdictional issue in Seattle has now led some observers to conclude that the contract negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) are unlikely to be resolved this year. Talks began May 10 in San Francisco.

“I don’t see it getting resolved in the next couple of weeks,” Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, told this week. “We’re probably months away.”

Being months away from resolution is very bad news for shippers, as the ILWU as already executed slowdowns during these negotiations. Here are a couple posts we published on the labor action that has happened:

ILWU Slows Oakland & Seattle Port Operations

ILWU Labor Action Occurs as Contract Negotiations Look Bad

One piece of good news, which Tirschwell points out, currently keeping labor contention from boiling over is the amount of work longshoremen are getting:

… the union’s negotiators are not under any pressure from the rank and file to rush into a contract. That’s because West Coast longshore workers have worked more hours year to date this year than during the same period last year.

According to numbers provided by the PMA, the ILWU working hours paid through the first week of October totaled 29.3 million, up 4 percent from the 28.2 million working hours paid during the same period last year. Working hours are up even though US imports from Asia to the West Coast were down 1.7 percent in January through September compared with the first nine months last year, according to PIERS, a sister product within S&P Global.

Amidst an uneasy economy, shipping demand is rapidly falling right now. Let’s hope that doesn’t cause labor hours to start falling, turning the situation ugly at West Coast ports.


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