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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PMA locks out West Coast longshore workers over the weekend

Work resumed at most West Coast ports on Monday, February 9 after the Pacific Maritime Association, an employers group of port terminal operators and shipping companies, closed the ports over the weekend in an attempt to gain leverage in the collective bargaining negotiations between PMA and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

The closures increased “delays for customers needing containers,” said the ILWU in a statement released Monday morning.  “The union remains focused on reaching a settlement as quickly as possible with employers.  Talks to resolve the few remaining issues between the Longshore Union and Pacific Maritime Association are ongoing.”

The Port of Portland remained closed after ILWU Local 8 called a one-day unfair labor practices strike on Monday, February 9 to protest the actions of ICTSI, which operates Portland’s Terminal 6. Local 8 was protesting what it describes as unfair disciplinary action taken by ICTSI against Local 8 members.

The weekend lockout of ILWU members could, according to the National Association of Manufacturers, cost the national economy as much as $4.2 billion.

The lockout appeared to be a form of punishment against ILWU members, who PMA alleges have been engaged in a coordinated slowdown of work on the docks during contract negotiations.

According to ILWU President Robert McEllrath, PMA’s lockout was an unnecessary interruption to the bargaining process that is close to completion.

“What the employers need to do is stay at the negotiating table and work through a few remaining issues with the workers who have made them successful for the past 80 years,” said McEllrath. “We are very close to reaching an agreement.”

PMA’s lockout was the second time that PMA has cancelled work to pressure the union into making contract concessions.

In January, PMA stopped unloading ships during the night shift at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles because, according to PMA, the docks had become too congested with shipping containers that had not been moved because of the alleged ILWU slowdown.

The ILWU recently produced aerial photographs of the docks where the second shift was shut down. The photos appear to show little if any congestion on the docks.

Because PMA cancelled night shift work, there are a number of ships waiting just outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to be offloaded.

“PMA is leaving ships at sea and claiming there’s no space on the docks, but there are acres of asphalt just waiting for the containers of those ships and hundreds of longshore workers ready to unload them,” said McEllrath. “The employers are deliberately worsening the existing congestion crisis to gain the upper hand at the bargaining table.”

PMA’s weekend port shutdown seemed ill-timed given the fact that the two sides have reached a tentative agreement on one of the main issues that was preventing a successful conclusion to the contract negotiations.

The two sides announced at the end of January that they had reached a tentative agreement on who would handle the maintenance work on shipping container chassis, the trailers that transport shipping containers from the docks to warehouses.

Since shipping containers became the main means of storing goods shipped overseas, ILWU members have performed maintenance on the chassis.

Jurisdiction over that work came into dispute when the shipping companies that until recently owned the chassis sold them to third-party contractors.

The ILWU has maintained that chassis work belongs to ILWU members.

The sale of the chassis to third-party contractors appears to be one of the main reasons that there has been a delay in offloading of ships on the West Coast.

The third-party contractors have failed to keep the chassis in good repair and have been unable to provide an adequate number of chassis to transport goods.

The resolution of this issue led observers to believe that the path was clear for an agreement to be reached.

But PMA’s weekend lockout and some public statements made by PMA CEO James McKenna suggests that PMA may not be interested in reaching a fair agreement with the union.

Among other things, McKenna in his public statement suggested that ILWU members are overpaid and should be willing to accept the terms of new agreement dictated by the PMA.

“What the ILWU heard yesterday is a man (McKenna) who makes $1 million a year telling the working class that we have more than our share,” said McEllrath. “Intensifying the rhetoric at this stage of bargaining when we are just a few issues away from reaching an agreement is totally unnecessary and unproductive.”

Negotiations between the two sides was supposed to resume on Monday, February 9, but the bargaining session was postponed until Wednesday.