Strap In Shippers: ILWU Contract Negotiations Look to Be Long & Bumpy Road

 In ILWU, ILWU contract, ILWU contract negotiations, ocean freight, ocean shipping, PMA, port congestion, shippers

There was more port disruption this week as the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) contract negotiations drag on. And shippers can expect this to continue for some time.

By all reports, the ILWU is refusing to do any serious negotiating until the jurisdiction issue at the Port of Seattle is resolved. However, according to a Journal of Commerce (JOC) article by Bill Mongelluzzo, it could be mid-2024 before that dispute reaches resolution. So as they say, “something’s gotta give.”

More Labor Action Disrupting the Port of Oakland

ILWU PMA meet about contract extension
Dockworker and shipping container

The Port of Oakland has seen quite a bit of disruption since the ILWU master contract expired July 1st. So it’s not a surprise more was seen Monday. Mongelluzzo reported the details:

The Port of Oakland’s largest container terminal was fully operational Tuesday after the loading and unloading of vessels was halted Monday due to job action taken by members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) linked to coastwide contract talks and an ongoing jurisdictional dispute in Seattle.

The Port of Oakland’s largest container terminal was fully operational Tuesday after the loading and unloading of vessels was halted Monday due to job action taken by members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) linked to coastwide contract talks and an ongoing jurisdictional dispute in Seattle.

This labor action adds to a long list disruption we’ve been seeing at West Coast ports.

Other Union Offers ILWU a Concession to Keep West Coast Market Share

For months, shippers, knowing port disruption and congestion is the norm with ILWU contract negotiations, have been diverting cargo to East and Gulf Coast ports. That means while the ILWU fights with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) over which union controls jobs at the Port of Seattle’s T-5 terminal, West Coast work opportunity is diminishing.

One of the unions in this jurisdiction battle holding up ILWU’s contract talks is smart enough to see the market share loss problem. The IAM have offered an olive branch, as Mongelluzzo puts it, to the ILWU in order to protect West Coast market share and, thus, union jobs. Mongelluzzo reports in his JOC article:

During a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearing last week, the IAM offered to not stand in the way of SSA employing ILWU labor at T-5 until a final NLRB decision on the jurisdictional matter is reached, probably next spring. IAM believes if there is a thaw in the T-5 matter — even a temporary one — it would provide an opening for the ILWU and PMA to hammer out a new coastwide contract, Don Crosatto, the IAM’s area director in Oakland, told JOC.com Tuesday.

“We said we’ll let it go for a while. We don’t want cargo fleeing the West Coast,” Crosatto said. The IAM has a valid contract with SSA for its terminals in Seattle, Oakland, and Long Beach that has been in effect for 70 years now, Crosatto noted.

Such wisdom has typically not been shown by the ILWU in the past. During the lead-up to and negotiations of 2014-15, ILWU members executed such slowdowns at the Port of Portland for jurisdiction over only two jobs, carriers stopped calling on the port with container ships. How many union jobs and man-hours were lost by the ILWU in flexing its muscle for job jurisdiction then?

So far, it doesn’t seem the ILWU learned the obvious lesson from its actions and their results at the Port of Portland. Perhaps a spark of wisdom will be shown by the ILWU in accepting the IAM’s olive branch and returning to the negotiating table. Unfortunately, we’re not seeing that yet. In fact, Mongelluzzo quoted a veteran industry source as saying, “The ILWU is stalling this time more than they ever have before.”

Does that mean these negotiations could last longer than any before?

T-5 Jurisdiction Issue Could Last Years

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the fight over T-5 jurisdiction at the Port of Seattle could go on for a long time. Mongelluzzo reports:

Crosatto added that if the ILWU continues to delay contract negotiations with the PMA until the T-5 issue is permanently resolved, the ILWU will likely be working without a contract for the duration of the NLRB’s deliberations and the subsequent appeals process, which could take two years.

“We’re looking at mid-2024 for true finality,” in the T-5 dispute, Crosatto said.

Two years of the ILWU refusing to negotiate and executing slow-downs at West Coast ports would obviously be unacceptable. How long would that go on before the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) would execute a lockout? How much would the likelihood of a full-blown strike increase?

Despite the IAM offering an olive branch, the union shows no intention of giving up its job jurisdiction to the ILWU. Pointing to its 70-year-old contract for West Coast port work, the IAM seems confident it will win the battle. And there’s no guarantee that battle will be over in two years. What is certain is when the ILWU goes to battle, shippers tend to be the losers, paying in port congestion and costly delays.

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