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Main ILWU-PMA negotiators not expected to meet until Dec. 2

No rapid conclusion is expected in labor contract talks that have been ongoing for six months.

   The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific
Maritime Association will not be talking turkey at the “big table” as
the Thanksgiving holiday approaches.
   The PMA
said that the union is refusing to hold so-called “big-table” talks
between chief negotiators ILWU President Bob McEllrath and PMA President
Jim McKenna and has decided to curtail the talks for 12 days.
   The decision to not have the lead negotiators meet for a dozen
days after more than six months of contract talks is bad news for
importers and exporters hoping for a quick agreement and rapid
restoration of normal operations at West Coast ports. The two sides have
been meeting since May 12 to negotiate a contract to replace the one
that expired on July 1.
   “Three weeks after initiating a coordinated series of slowdowns
that have plagued the major West Coast ports of Tacoma, Seattle,
Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach, the ILWU has now taken its slowdown
tactics to the bargaining table,” the PMA charged.
   “As a result of the union’s decision, the only bargaining through
Dec. 1 will be limited to sub-committees discussing limited issues,
with most members of the ILWU’s negotiating committee taking an extended
break,” the management group said.
   Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the ILWU, said  “Our view is that we
are trying to make progress and we think these smaller committees offer
a better chance for progress on some important issues that need to be
addressed. We are hoping both sides can move things along as quickly as
   He said that during the negotiations, there have been periods where
smaller groups have met. He said it will be up to the committee members
if they will meet right up to Thanksgiving next week.
   The fact that the leaders of the union and PMA are not continuing to meet upset some shipper groups.
   “Some of our farmers and cattlemen have some comments alright — not
suitable for a family publication like the American Shipper,
that’s for
damn sure,” said Peter Friedmann, the executive director of the
Agriculture Transportation Coalition. “The arrogance and selfishness is
unbelievable. The damage
that the ILWU is doing to the West Coast ports is permanent.
Nobody is building distribution centers on the  West Coast any more.
all going to the East and Southeast. Wonder how the ILWU guys will
enjoy watching their kids flipping burgers for a living — all because
their fathers destroyed the West Coast ports and
their chance to be longshoremen. Well, I expect the ILWU should enjoy
the bonuses that ports of Charleston, Savannah, Norfolk ought to be
paying them.”
Carlton, the chief executive officer of the National Industrial
Transportation League, said, “This is irresponsible and unprofessional behavior on the part of the
ILWU. The union’s leadership is turning a blind eye on the consequences
of their passive aggressive tactics on millions of others throughout the
U.S. who will be negatively affected by their actions.”
   Matthew Shay, the president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation, said he was “greatly disappointed” that both side are taking a break from the negotiations. “After six months
of negotiations we have seen very little progress,” he added.
   “We reiterate our call on President Obama to immediately engage the
parties to get them back to the negotiating table. It’s time the parties
accept a federal mediator to help them bridge the gaps and arrive at a
new contract. Without a contract, stakeholders cannot work on addressing
the ongoing congestion issues at the ports,” said Shay.“We urge the two sides to end the brinkmanship and return to the
talks immediately. The nation’s retailers and our vendors, suppliers and
customers are counting on the two parties to act responsibly.”
   A logistics professional in the Seattle-Tacoma area, where many food
exporters say they have been caught in a work slowdown right as they
prepare to ship this year’s harvest, suggested the negotiators “should
be locked in a
room without food until they settle.”

   The PMA accused the ILWU of making matters worse by “refusing to agree
to a temporary contract extension — similar to one it signed over the
summer — despite multiple requests by the PMA. A contract extension would
give both parties access to the well-established waterfront grievance
process, and most notably would give employers recourse for the ILWU
slowdowns that are continuing,” the PMA said in a press release.
   “We have made it abundantly clear that we believe these negotiations
are of the utmost importance and should continue at full strength until
the Thanksgiving holiday,” said PMA spokesman Wade Gates. “We are
disappointed the union is not showing the same urgency to resolve the
issues between us.”
   Congestion at ports has intensified in recent weeks. Container
shipping lines have complained about slowdowns by ILWU members and have
said the union is not dispatching properly qualified workers. The union
said it is being unfairly blamed for congestion, adding that the
congestion has many causes not within its control — higher cargo
volumes; shortages of chassis, truck drivers and rail capacity; and
decisions by carriers to deploy larger ships and form new alliances
without proper planning.
   One of the Federal Maritime Commissioners, William Doyle, issued a statement earlier this week
in which he said, “I believe it is time that the ocean carriers do their
part and find ways to assist in eliminating port congestion. As has
been pointed out by many industry stakeholders, the actions of the
carriers have, in part, led to where we are today.”
   Doyle made his observation as he and some other FMC Commissioners
were voting to ask the Transpacific Stabilization Agreement, a
discussion agreement that includes virtually all container carriers
operating between Asia and the U.S., for additional information. The
agreement is seeking to make permanent a temporary arrangement which
allowed it to encompass discussions about export trade as well as

   The PMA said Thursday, “This slowdown in negotiations and the union’s
refusal to extend the contract are taking place amid continuing worker
slowdowns, which began on Halloween in Tacoma and soon spread to
Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach. In some ports,
productivity remains 30-percent or more below normal, as a result of
orchestrated ILWU maneuvers.
   It continued, “These slowdowns are impacting retailers, farmers, manufacturers,
consumers and others during the holiday season and at a critical time
for the U.S. economy. The union slowdowns in Seattle and Tacoma
particularly have crippled the agricultural industries in the Pacific
Northwest right at harvest export season, meaning that millions of
dollars’ worth of Washington State apples, Idaho potatoes, hay,
Christmas trees and other perishables are rotting in containers sitting
on the docks. Agriculture voices are concerned that small farmers and
growers will lose not only this year’s crop values, but also future
contracts as overseas customers look elsewhere for dependable supplies.
   “This productivity loss is distinct from the congestion
that has caused operational challenges at the Southern California ports
of Los Angeles and Long Beach. In fact, those two ports were the only
major West Coast ports that experienced congestion prior to ILWU
slowdowns, and the ILWU has knowingly made the situation in Southern
California worse by failing to dispatch qualified crane operators per
longstanding practice — the same skilled workers who can help to
alleviate yard congestion. Union leaders have made clear that they will
continue this unilateral change in practice until a new coast-wide agreement is reached.”
   In August, the ILWU and the PMA reached a tentative agreement on
health benefits, and a source told American Shipper that since then,
there has been progress in resolving many local issues, but there are
major issues that still have to be worked out. The ILWU has a caucus on
Dec. 15, and if a tentative contract is worked out by then, it could be
presented to the 100 or so members of the ILWU’s Longshore Caucus.
   In recent weeks, frustrated shipper groups have been asking the
White House to get involved in the talks by encouraging a settlement or
the use of a federal mediator. Two weeks ago, 105 business groups asked
President Obama to encourage the ILWU and the PMA “to begin working
with a federal mediator through the Federal Mediation and Conciliation
Service (FMCS). This approach was successful in resolving difficult
negotiations for East and Gulf Coast ports just last year.”
   They continued, “Even if both parties refuse federal mediation, we believe the FMCS would benefit from beginning to monitor the negotiations.”
   On Nov. 17, a group of 61 agricultural groups made a similar
request to Obama, asking him to “use whatever means you have at your
disposal, including bringing in a federal mediator to help resolve the
contract negotiations. As you know, federal mediators have been very
helpful in past port contract disputes.”
The union is “adamant they don’t want a mediator involved,” said one
source. He added that the idea has not really been discussed since the
employers know the union is opposed.
   Merrilees said adding a mediator to the process won’t necessarily fix things.
   “Mediators are not magicians with special powers,” said Merrilees.
“The agreement has to be reached by the employers and the union, and
there is nothing on the negotiating table that can’t be resolved by both
parties seeking a fair agreement.”
A federal mediator would have to be requested by both parties, and there
is no indication the Obama administration has asked the sides to
consider mediation.
   A statement issued by the White House this week referenced the
negotiations between the ILA and employers represented by the U.S.
Maritime Alliance (USMX) two years ago. The statement read, “Just as the
two sides in that case were able to resolve their differences through
the time-tested process of collective bargaining, we’re confident that
management and labor at the West Coast ports can do the same thing.
They’re at the table trying to work it out, and we’re confident that
there’s a way forward. We continue to monitor the situation.”
   That statement fell short for shippers hoping the White House
would encourage the PMA and the ILWU to use a mediator as the ILA and
the USMX did.
   Dave Adam, the chief executive officer of USMX, said that in the
negotiations with the ILA, “We might not have been interested in the
assistance of the federal mediators during our bargaining struggles, but
in the end, I think it worked out in everybody’s best interest. I am
surprised that there is not a stronger insistence by the government that
they assist in the bargaining.” But he added he was “not privy to any
of the details of what goes on in the West,” including whether the FMCS
has contacted the ILWU or the PMA to encourage use of a federal
   The president does have the power to force mediation through use
of provisions within the Taft-Hartley Act, but that is an extreme
measure that has only been used 33 times in the past — 32 times after a
strike and once in the case of the lockout in 2002, when employers at
West Coast ports locked out members of the ILWU in response to what they
said was a slowdown. Taft-Hartley has never been used in a situation
when the parties are continuing to bargain.
   If a strike by the ILWU or a lockout by employers occurs,
President Obama could use Taft-Hartley Act to declare a national
emergency and return the longshoremen and employers to the bargaining
table, preventing a work stoppage for an 80-day, cooling-off period. If
the president believes a labor dispute imperils national health or
safety, he may appoint a “board of inquiry” to investigate a dispute.
The attorney general can then ask a U.S. District Court to enjoin work
stoppage; during that time, parties would try to reach a settlement with
the aid of the FMCS.
   Michael LeRoy, a professor at the School of Labor and Employment
Relations and College of Law at the University of Illinois, noted that
the ILWU “can generate bargaining pressure by slowing down work, and the
union also knows from decades of experience that a full-blown strike
will surely lead to an 80-day injunction.
   “So, why doesn’t PMA just bring it on by locking out workers?” he
continued. “Likely because this will play into the union’s hands —
meaning that Obama might call their bluff and not intervene, at least
for a week or so. This would result in a massive rerouting of shipping
to Gulf and East Coast ports.”
   Of course, that kind of rerouting of cargo is more difficult than ever
because so many containerships today are too large to pass through the
Panama Canal.
   LeRoy noted, “The only time a president has intervened in a lockout
is 2002, when Bush did. In doing so, he basically said, ‘Even though
this is a lockout, it’s really a strike precipitated by a work
slowdown.’ The effect of the injunction was to mute the impact of a work
   On Nov. 19, representatives of worldwide dockworkers’ unions meeting
in London pledged their support for the ILWU, and accused the PMA of
“smearing” the ILWU and negotiating through the media.

Chris Dupin

Chris Dupin has written about trade and transportation and other business subjects for a variety of publications before joining American Shipper and Freightwaves.

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