ILWU delegates recommend ratification of tentative agreement

ILWU caucus delegates voted on April 3 to recommend that union members ratify a tentative agreement that the union’s negotiating team and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) negotiated in February.

The agreement covers 20,000 longshore workers at 29 ports along the US West Coast.

Union members will now receive copies of the agreement and vote on it by mail. Voting will end May 22.

Seventy-eight percent of the caucus delegates voted to recommend ratification of the agreement.

“We secured a tentative agreement to maintain good jobs for dockworkers, their families, and their communities,” said Robert McEllrath, ILWU international president. “Longshore men and women on the docks will now have the final and most important say in the process.”

Negotiations that led to the tentative agreement lasted nine months, the longest negotiating period in the history of the ILWU.

During that time, PMA, which represents maritime and stevedore corporations doing business on the West Coast, accused longshore workers of engaging in a slowdown to give the union more bargaining leverage.

PMA in January retaliated for the alleged slowdown by enforcing a partial lockout at some of the busiest ports on the West Coast.

During the negotiations, especially toward the end, the delivery of cargo bound for the nation’s retailers was delayed significantly.

The delay had a big impact on the nation’s economy. A research and policy organization of merchants claims that by the end of the negotiation, the delays were costing the national economy $2 billion a day.

Another source said that the delays cost US retailers $3 billions in lost sales.

The delays led President Obama to send Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to the West Coast to monitor negotiations. After Perez spoke to both sides in the dispute, the union and PMA reached a tentative agreement.

Details about the agreement have not been made public, but the union provided some information on a few of the major issues that stalled negotiations.

One of the big stumbling blocks was PMA’s desire to cut longshore workers’ health care benefits.

That issue was resolved last summer when the two sides agreed to maintain the current health care benefit, which covers a wide range of health care services for workers, their families, and retirees at almost no cost to workers.

Another hurdle was the question of who would perform inspection and repair work on container chassis, the trailers that haul the large cargo containers.

Until last year, PMA represented employers owned the chassis, and union members inspected and repaired them as needed. But employers decided to outsource this work and sold their chassis to third-party contractors.

The sale created bottlenecks that contributed to delays in getting cargo delivered and made an already dangerous job less safe.

In January, the union and PMA agreed that ILWU members would inspect and repair the chassis before they leave the docks even though the third-party contractors will continue to own the chassis.

The last hurdle involved the arbitration process used to settle grievances. The union was concerned that some arbitrators were favoring employers in their arbitration decisions. Many of these decisions affect the health and safety of workers.

Loading and unloading large cargo containers is dangerous work, and this work will like get more dangerous as employers introduce more automation on the docks.

To protect worker safety, the union wanted to ensure that worker grievances get a fair hearing and pushed to replace some arbitrators who the union thought weren’t being objective.

The two sides compromised on this point by agreeing to replace arbitrators with three-person arbitration panels.

The tentative agreement also raises base pay and provides additional pay increases for workers with specialized skills.

The business press has called the tentative agreement a big win for the union and its members, but critics of the tentative agreement, some of whom are members and either current or former local leaders, are urging members to reject it.

According to those critical of the agreement, it doesn’t do enough to protect workers from job losses caused by automation, it gives bigger pay raises to those already earning higher wages, it doesn’t go far enough in protecting ILWU jurisdiction on chassis work, and it weakens an ILWU tradition of solidarity by making it more difficult for ILWU  members to refuse to cross picket lines.

Union leaders have refused to speculate whether members will ratify the tentative agreement, but whatever the outcome, there’s no guarantee that the new agreement will bring labor peace to the docks during the five-year life of the contract.

PMA represented employers will continue to probe for union weakness as they struggle to find new ways to reduce union power on the docks.

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