ILWU Contract Negotiations Turn Ugly: Is ILWU Staging Slowdowns?

 In cargo, ILWU Negotiations, International Shipping, shippers

“The International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) has initiated 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 Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) opened a news release with on Monday (November 3rd).

The ILWU responded with its own press article headlining, “Dishonest media offensive by PMA jeopardizes contract negotiations and deflects from a growing congestion problem.”

ILWU Slowdowns Port of Tacoma resized 600Despite the ILWU coast-wide contract expiring back on July 1st and six months of negotiations with no new contract, talks seemed to be going smoothly between the ILWU and PMA.

The last bit of news on the ILWU negotiations came in August when a joint release from the PMA and ILWU proclaimed the parties had reached a tentative agreement on health benefits, which was supposed to be one of, if not THE biggest obstacle-creating negotiation point to getting a new contract created.

It was such good news that all the international shipping news outlets were optimistic about the ILWU contract negotiations and publishing stories about how well and peacefully the talks between the ILWU and PMA were going. I even wrote a blog titled: 2 Reasons the ILWU PMA Contract Negotiations Will Resolve Soon.

Then there was silence. Over two months of silence.

During the silence on the ILWU negotiations, congestion at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach took center stage in international shipping news. If severe congestion and delays at Southern California ports was not bad enough, now shippers have the bad news of slowdowns at Pacific Northwest ports and ugly accusations going back and forth between the PMA and ILWU.

The talks are no longer peaceful.

Is the ILWU orchestrating slowdowns as the PMA says or is the PMA deflecting port congestion responsibility by smearing the union as the ILWU claims?

A classic case of he said, she said? Maybe, but there’s good reason to believe the ILWU is orchestrating slowdowns.

Let’s take a quick look at the press releases from the PMA and ILWU.

The PMA states:

Once the contract expired on July 1st, 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. As such, they agreed that normal operations at West Coast ports would continue until an agreement could be reached.

“Now, the ILWU has reneged on that agreement,” said Wade Gates, a spokesperson for the PMA.

The ILWU responds:

PMA’s press statement dishonestly accuses the ILWU of breaking a supposed agreement “that normal operations at West Coast ports would continue until an agreement could be reached.” This is a bold-faced lie. No such agreement was ever made…

In multiple joint press releases from the ILWU and PMA, the statement “both parties have pledged to keep cargo moving” appeared. That certainly sounds like the PMA and ILWU agreed to continue operations at the ports as normal during the contract negotiations. I doubt any shippers read that as, “We’ll keep cargo moving, but much slower than normal.” Now the ILWU is suddenly saying, “We never agreed to that”?

The ILWU says:

…PMA also falsely states that agreement to temporary contract extensions is standard practice.

I looked for such a statement from the PMA and did not find it. What I did find was:

…the 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. 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.

The false statement here again appears to be on the ILWU side as the PMA never appears to call temporary contract extensions common practice. Perhaps you could infer from saying the ILWU has agreed to temporary contract extensions during past negotiations that these extensions are standard practice, but I’m not sure the statement actually implies that. Maybe it’s the “well-established grievance procedure that has served the waterfront for decades” that the ILWU thinks serves as implication.

What I do not think is fair on the PMA side is to state that the ILWU did not agree to an extension because it would give both parties access to grievance procedure unless the ILWU actually stated that is why they did not agree to an extension. The PMA should have said they believe the ILWU refused an extension in order to avoid grievance procedure. The PMA would have good reason for their suspicion of the ILWU’s motive.

The last time the ILWU did agree to an extension, it was to cover a short amount of time in July of this year while the PMA and ILWU were taking a recess from talks. During that time, ILWU members walked off the job at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to do what was supposed to be the unlikely thing of showing solidarity with a rival union, the Teamsters who were leading a truckers strike at the ports. A labor arbitrator ordered them back to work because of the extension.

Meanwhile, judges and arbitrators have repeatedly ruled that the ILWU has been intentionally causing slowdowns at the Port of Portland. Not extending the contract has allowed the ILWU to take advantage with hard-timing tactics at Terminal 6 at the Port of Portland.

There isn’t time to get into the history of ILWU slowdown tactics in this blog, but just looking at the union’s actions at the Port of Portland is enough to know they’ve utilized such tactics.

Then there’s ILWU’s pointing at chassis as the main cause of port congestion. The article the ILWU points to as evidence is about chassis being the main cause of congestion at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Los Angeles and Long Beach. The PMA is accusing the ILWU of orchestrating slowdowns at Pacific Northwest ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

But speaking of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, there have been complaints of the ILWU’s productivity there too. One example I’ve personally seen is this quote from an email sent by a representative of a trucking company called J&M that services the Southern California ports, “Please complain at terminals they are the ones that have to work faster or get rid of that union that is only affecting productivity [sic].”

While many have included the ILWU as a contributor to the congestion at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, I’ve avoided including the union in the factors causing the LA/LB Port congestion. Perhaps I was too quick to ignore such complaints of frustrated truckers along with the words of industry professionals.

The Ports of Seattle and Tacoma aren’t exactly dealing with the same congestion issues as America’s largest ports by volume down in Southern California. “’We have the highest percentage of under-utilized  terminals on the West Coast. We’re not proud of it,’ said John Wolfe, executive director of the Port of Tacoma,” quoted a JOC article.

It seems hard to believe that big drops in productivity and sudden delays are happening there without union members following slowdown orders as the PMA claims it heard ILWU business agents have sent.

After several days of crippled productivity, employers demanded that union leaders return to normal workplace practices. 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.

Well, the Detroit Lions have been managing to win football games without star wide receiver Calvin Johnson, all 3 tight ends that started the season on their roster, and star running back Reggie Bush. Of course, the Lions did their best to get productive players to fill those receiver and running back shoes. The problem is, the ILWU has motivation not to play the best ball it can as slowdowns are a long-traditioned tactic in contract negotiations.

What we end up with is the PMA saying:

“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.” [–Wade Gates]

And the ILWU saying:

Today’s unilateral media blitz by PMA will only delay progress at a critical point in the contract negotiations.

As what seemed to be peaceful contract negotiations turn ugly, shippers and the economy fall into great risk of suffering.

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