All eyes on ILWU caucus beginning today

Corianne Egan, December 14, 2014,

This week’s International Longshore and Warehouse Union caucus in San Francisco may or may not be the end to seven months of contract negotiation that has engulfed the West Coast in disruption and uncertainty.


ILWU-PMA contract negotiations in 2014 have now taken longer than bargaining sessions in 2002 and 2008. The most contentious, in 2002, ended on Dec. 1, after a 10-day coast-wide lockout. The 2008 negotiations were completed in October. The extended negotiations have caused months of uncertainty for shippers, who have called for the federal government to get involved in mediation.


The meeting in San Francisco could spell the end of negotiations if ILWU leaders conclude there has been enough progress to reach a tentative agreement. If not, it would be back to the bargaining table for the union and the Pacific Maritime Association.


Meanwhile, ports on the U.S. West Coast are still struggling to put delays behind them. Shippers continue to report terminal dwell times of seven to 10 days despite the holiday shipping season at the ports being essentially over. As of Friday, 13 containerships were at anchor off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach awaiting berth space, two more than a two-year high of 11 reached on Oct. 27, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California.


The caucus that begins on Monday could last several days. If the leadership  believes a tentative contract can be signed, it would have to be ratified by a rank-and-file vote in the coming weeks. If agreement can’t be reached, negotiations could run into January and February assuming the parties take time off during the holidays, as they did during Thanksgiving.


Extending the negotiations into 2015 especially if accompanied by the slowdowns that the PMA has accused the union of engaging in would be costly for shipping lines, terminal operators and shippers and would further prompt shippers to seek routing alternatives on the East and Gulf coasts in 2015. Industry leaders are already speculating on the long-term damage to West Coast ports.


The congestion is wreaking havoc on supply chains around the world. McDonald’s outlets in Japan are coping with a French fry shortage, the Chicago Tribune reported, also mentioning how the Golden State Warriors of the National Basketball Association were forced to hand out 10,000 IOUs to fans at a recent game when bobbleheads for a giveaway were delayed at the port.


Agriculture exporters have been hit hard, as well. From Christmas trees  – which the Agricultural Transport Coalition said this week could miss the holiday season in Asia entirely – to apples, grain and rice, the AgTC says slowdowns are likely to cause a “painful loss for farmers whose entire year is dependent on current shipments.”


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