Thursday, February 5, 2015

West Coast Dock Dispute Sees Freight and Shipping in Parlous State as 'Final Offer' Made

Port Operators Issue Details of Longshoremens Wages and Attitude to Mediation to Gain Public Sympathy
Shipping News Feature

US – The west coast port dispute continues despite the presence of federal mediation and the two sides have issued the usual contradictive statements we have come to expect in this bitter row. According to the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has been trying to change the remit of mediators who rule against it, giving the union the right to unilaterally remove arbitrators as it wishes. Meanwhile the PMA has made what it says is a final offer ‘at this point’ whilst export and import freight remains gridlocked, shipping companies divert to other ports, and bad blood appears on both sides.

The ILWU Longshore Division, which represents 20,000 dockworkers at 29 west coast ports, stands accused of holding the employers to ransom with PMA President and CEO Jim McKenna publishing a video this week explaining his side of the story. He outlines the ‘final offer’ saying that full time ILWU workers already earn an average of $147,000 per year and receive a health care package costing the employers $35,000 per head, a plan which costs the workers nothing. In retirement the maximum pension stands at $80,000 per annum. The offer on the table is for wages to rise roughly 3% per year equating to maximum possible earnings of around $160,000, unchanged health benefits and a pension rise to $88,800 under the working terms already agreed.

The PMA says this ‘all in’ contract offer is designed to bring contract negotiations to a close after nearly nine months, and follows three months of severe ILWU slowdowns that have crippled productivity at major West Coast ports. ILWU slowdowns, which are prohibited by contract, a condition currently void, are now in their 14th week, severely impacting operations at major West Coast ports including Tacoma, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach. The PMA states that the latest offer meets the ILWU’s two biggest demands, maintenance of their Cadillac health plan as well as jurisdiction over maintenance and repair of truck chassis. Jim McKenna commented:

“Our members have shown tremendous restraint in the face of ILWU slowdowns that have cut productivity by as much as 30, 40, even 50%. This offer puts us all in as we seek to wrap up these contract talks and return our ports to normal operations.

“The deteriorating situation on the docks is in nobody’s long term interest. I hope the ILWU leadership will give very serious consideration to this contract offer, which I believe respects their members and gives us a clear path to conclude these talks. We owe it to workers and businesses across the nation to resolve our differences and get our ports moving again.”

Unsurprisingly support for the PMA position came from management at the Port of Oakland, where perishable fruit is rotting whilst in store and other time sensitive export goods such as pistachio nuts, sit idly awaiting shipment. Inland importers await long overdue goods and waste companies fill to overflowing with one of America’s biggest export items. The port’s statement says:

“The West Coast waterfront labour impasse needs to be settled - quickly. Importers and exporters are suffering significant cargo delays. Central Valley farmers can’t ship their produce. Small business owners can’t get goods to put on the shelf. Harbour truckers can’t do their jobs. Everyone is suffering. If the situation, worsens. If West Coast ports shut down, the U.S. economy and the global supply chain will be jeopardised. In the San Francisco Bay Area, 73,000 jobs that depend on the Port of Oakland will be at risk. The impasse is good for no one. It is time to reach agreement on a new contract and put the disruptions and delays behind us.”

There are signs in the latest statement from the ILWU however which might be seen as hopeful considering the tone of earlier statements from the union. This seems to have been engendered by the PMA President threat to have to close the ports. ILWU President Robert McEllrath held up two fingers to indicate a tiny difference between the two sides as he criticised foreign ownership saying:

“We’re this close. We’ve dropped almost all of our remaining issues to help get this settled - and the few issues that remain can be easily resolved. Closing the ports at this point would be reckless and irresponsible the public will suffer and corporate greed will prevail. These foreign-owned companies make billions of dollars and pay their executives millions to do their bidding.”

The ILWU pledged to keep the ports open and keep cargo flowing, despite the massive, congestion crisis that has delayed shipping for most of 2014, a situation each side blames the other for. This is the second time in recent memory that the employers have threatened to close ports at the final stages of negotiations. The union has not engaged in a full port strike over the coast longshore contract since 1971, 44 years ago, preferring the ‘go slow’ option.