Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Federal Mediator Hears Bitter Opposition as Freight Dispute on US West Coast Continues

Two Sides Still Snipe as They Negotiate Respective Positions
Shipping News Feature

US – After reading the latest press releases from the two sides involved in the West Coast port dispute one can have nothing but sympathy for the federal mediators now charged with trying to bring harmony in what has become an increasingly acrimonious row. Both the workers, represented by the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU), and the employers in the form of the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), issued statements yesterday which may as well have been in different languages, so at variance were they.

According to the ILWU, the PMA told the federal mediator and union representatives that West Coast ports have reached a point where there is little space available for additional import containers arriving on the docks, and no space for export and empty containers returning to the docks, a fact which the ILWU says the PMA made clear it was not blaming union workers for, and attributing to the chronic shortage of chassis units.

The union statement then goes on to say that the PMA announced a plan it considers illogical, one to eliminate night-shifts at many ports. According to the ILWU the PMA wishes to apply the cutbacks to bulk and break-bulk operations, which it calls ‘a cynical tactic to generate anxiety among workers’. ILWU President Bob McEllrath, commented:

“Longshore workers are ready, willing and able to clear the backlog created by the industry’s poor decisions. The employer is making nonsensical moves like cutting back on shifts at a critical time, creating gridlock in a cynical attempt to turn public opinion against workers. This creates an incendiary atmosphere during negotiations and does nothing to get us closer to an agreement.”

The PMA statement is similarly incendiary with the employers saying after ‘two months of ILWU staged slowdowns that have methodically reduced terminal productivity at the five largest ports on the West Coast, operations are approaching complete gridlock’. It accuses the ILWU of intentionally withholding dozens of essential skilled workers each shift for the past 10 weeks going against 15 years of precedent in a surgical campaign aimed at causing maximum disruption.

The effect of this action has meant by withholding an average of 75 yard crane drivers each day, the ILWU has stalled the movement of tens of thousands of containers, PMA estimates. Since November 3, the Union has reduced these yard crane operator positions in Southern California by 67% and, since agreeing to mediation no further agreements have been reached and ILWU work slowdowns have continued to the point where many terminals are in peril of complete gridlock.

The PMA further says ILWU members are among the highest paid union workers in America and continue to receive full wages and benefits while stifling productivity and putting West Coast port terminals at the brink of full shutdown. It further points out that the two sides have already reached tentative agreements on health care and increases to pay guarantees. That tentative agreement provides fully employer paid health care benefits valued at $35,000 per worker annually. PMA also has proposed pay increases and pension enhancements with no ‘takeaways’ in the PMA proposal. PMA spokesperson Steve Getzug commented:

“The PMA has a sense of urgency to resolve these contract talks and get our ports moving again. Unfortunately, it appears the Union’s motivation is to continue slowdowns in an attempt to gain leverage in the bargaining. The ILWU slowdowns and the resulting operational environment are no longer sustainable.”

So it seems the opening salvos under mediation are taking the same bitter tone we have come to expect from these disputes, hopefully as the situation develops resolution will be achieved and there will be the usual reconciliation – until the next time. The question will remain however as to exactly how much long term business has been lost as a result of this dispute.