Amid discord, ILWU, PMA to restart direct talks

Bill Mongelluzzo, December 17, 2014, JOC.com

Negotiators for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association will resume direct negotiations on Thursday, even as they disagree over the current state of the contract talks.

 

The PMA stated today that rumors about the two sides being close to achieving a tentative agreement are untrue. “Even after seven months of negotiations, we remain far apart on several issues, and the union slowdowns continue to disrupt the movement of cargo through the ports,” PMA said in a press release.

 

The ILWU responded that it has no problem with the PMA dispelling false rumors of a tentative agreement, “but the fact remains that negotiations remain positive and are making progress.”

 

Negotiations for a coastwide contract, which began in May, were moving laboriously along for months when the PMA on Dec. 11 presented the ILWU with a “new” contract offer. The ILWU, which on Monday opened a caucus of about 90 members from up and down the coast, responded with its views of the offer. The caucus concluded its work on Tuesday, but the ILWU said it can be reconvened on short notice if necessary.

 

The spurt in activity gave rise to speculation that a watershed moment had been reached in the negotiations, but the PMA and ILWU today are downplaying such observations.

 

The fact that the PMA and ILWU view the current negotiating environment so differently is troubling, however. The PMA emphasizes the harm that West Coast ports and their customers have endured from what it calls ILWU work slowdowns.

 

“The union slowdowns continue to disrupt the movement of cargo through the ports. Business is being lost and we are concerned that the damage is permanent and shippers will be fearful to put their trust in the West Coast ports going forward,” PMA stated in its release.

 

The ILWU for weeks has stated that port congestion problems referenced by the PMA are due to a variety of logistical issues ranging from big ships being operated by powerful carrier alliances to chassis shortages and intermodal rail disruptions. The ILWU has denied all along that it is engaging in work slowdowns, and its locals point to specific health and safety issues being the cause of many problems.

 

The ILWU said today that even after a contract settlement is reached, port congestion will continue “because the key drivers are industry-based changes in operations and business models, including chassis outsourcing, which have paralyzed ports and made the docks much more dangerous for workers.”

 

Nevertheless, crane productivity in the Pacific Northwest on Oct. 31 dropped from about 28 container moves per crane, per hour, to less than 20, and have remained at that level. In Southern California, marine terminals have consistently been shorted skilled workers since then, and the ports report that terminal utilization now exceeds 90 percent, which is considered unsustainable in the marine terminal industry.

 

The negotiating teams for the PMA and ILWU were scheduled to meet separately today before both sides return to face-to-face negotiations on Thursday.

 

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