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American ShipperWarehouse

West Coast dockers? labor talks likely to continue into July

West Coast dockersÆ labor talks likely to continue into July

The West Coast dockworkers' union and representatives of the dockers' maritime industry employers are unlikely to reach a full settlement before the midnight Monday expiration of the current six- year labor pact, despite nearly four months of negotiations.

      However, unlike the rancorous nature of the previous contract negotiations in 2002 that ended in a 10-day lockout, both sides emphasize they are willing and prepared this time to negotiate well past the deadline to reach a new contract.

      'By all accounts, the process has been more productive and respectful this time,' Craig Merrilees International Longshore and Warehouse Union spokesman, told The Oregonian. 'The whole tone and tenor is different.'

      Leaders of the ILWU, which represents nearly 26,000 dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports, and officials of the industry-representing Pacific Maritime Association agreed last year to begin contract talks on March 17, nearly a month early, sparking guarded optimism among the industry.

      Despite the Monday midnight expiration of the current contract, both side have indicated talks could extend through July.

      'Both sides remain hopeful that they can resolve any outstanding issues at the table,' PMA spokeswoman Madeline Turnock told The Oregonian. 'After July, it’s hard to say what will happen.'

      After the Monday midnight deadline, the current contract will be extended to keep operations unaffected. During past negotiations, the contract extensions was automatic, reoccurring each day unless one side or the other takes action.

      Both sides said two weeks ago that a tentative agreement had been reached on health care issues that were on the table. Earlier this year, ILWU officials identified health care benefits, a major sticking point in previous contract talks, as a primary goal for the union during the contract talks.

      The current ILWU health plan requires no worker contributions, has a zero deductible and offers $1 prescriptions.

      The PMA has said containing escalating health care costs, which the association said have grown from $202 million in 2002 to $419 million last year, was critical to any contract deal.

      Like much of what is transpiring at the bargaining table, details of the health care agreement have yet to be released.

      And while the tentative health benefits agreement came as good news to those watching the talks from the outside, both sides pointed out that many other issues remain unresolved. Sources within the two sides have said negotiations on at least some of these remaining issues, which include wages, pensions, and rules covering worker safety, remain far apart. Despite the gap, both sides — at least publicly — are remaining confident of a timely settlement.

      'We’re committed to resolving the differences at the table and we’re committed to getting this done as quickly as we can,' PMA spokesman Steve Getzug told the Long Beach Press-Telegram.

      Sources familiar with the negotiations are also reporting that the current negotiations are focusing on a three- or four-year contract. The six-year contract, which expires tonight, was seen by many at the time as a necessary 'cool-down' period for the animosity created during the 2002 10-day lockout. In addition, the six years allowed new leaders, each with more cooperative approaches to negotiations, to take the helm of both the ILWU and PMA.

      This week, which includes both Independence Day and the ILWU 'Bloody Thursday' holiday, is likely to be short on negotiations.

      An ILWU caucus, a gathering of about 100 member-elected delegates, has already been set for July 14 — presumably to consider any tentative contract. Once the caucus approves any proposed contract, the agreement would face a full ILWU membership vote.

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