Dockworkers may be just days away from lockout

The Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union remain at odds over wages, pensions, the duration of the contract and arbitration for workplace disputes.

By Justin Pritchard, February 5, 2015, The Associated Press

Employers could lock out West Coast dockworkers in as few as five days if the two sides do not reach a new contract, the head of a maritime association warned Wednesday in what amounts to an ultimatum for talks that have ground on for nine months.


Though Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) CEO James McKenna said he did not want his members to lock out longshore workers, he said that would be inevitable if cargo congestion persists at 29 ports from San Diego to Seattle.


The association has been saying for months that ports that handle about $1 trillion in trade annually are on the “brink of gridlock.” In recent weeks, queues of massive ships have grown longer outside the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland, Calif., and in Puget Sound.


McKenna said backups and delays at the ports are harming farmers, manufacturers and consumers as the flow of goods approaches a “coastwide meltdown.” He called on the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to accept management’s second formal contract proposal since negotiations began last May.


“We’re not considering a lockout,” McKenna said on a conference call with reporters, his first public comments since the talks began. “What I’m really saying is that this system will bring it to a stop. Once that happens, we really don’t have a choice.”


He said that tipping point could come as soon as five days, or as many as 10 days.


The previous six-year contract between the dockworkers and their employer expired last July. A federal mediator agreed Jan. 6 to intervene in negotiations between the two sides in San Francisco. Negotiators have announced tentative agreements on health care and maintenance of truck chassis used to transport containers from ships.


Ten ships were queued up Friday in Puget Sound, according to the Marine Exchange of Puget Sound. To have any ships anchored, waiting to unload, was rare before Halloween when the slowdown started.


Since then, Calaway Trading, which ships grains, forages and hay products through the Seattle and Tacoma ports destined for Asia mainly as animal feed, has lost 50 percent of its business and fears having to shut down completely in the event of a lockout by the PMA.


“I don’t see really how there is any other way to approach it,” said Blaine Calaway, vice president of sales for the Ellensburg-based company. “That really is the only option. If you can’t get empty containers and you can’t load containers, than you can’t run the company.”


The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) disputes charges of a slowdown and instead blames issues beyond its control, including a shortage of truck beds to take containers from the docks to distribution warehouses.


In response to the maritime associations’ announcement Wednesday, ILWU president Robert McEllrath said the union is trying to keep its employers at the negotiating table to finish an agreement that is “extremely 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,” he said in a statement.


The two sides remain at odds over wages, pensions, the duration of the contract and arbitration for workplace disputes. The parties negotiated many of the same issues in 2002 before the maritime association locked out workers for 10 days amid slowdowns. That stoppage, which ended when then-President George W. Bush invoked the Taft- Hartley Act, cost the U.S. economy $1 billion a day, the maritime association said.


A 20-day lockout now would cost more than $2 billion a day, the association said in a report last year, including losses to railroads, ocean carriers and the broader economy.


In his remarks, McKenna laid out what he called the “best offer.”


He said that the proposed five-year contract includes wage increases of about 3 percent annually, an increase in pension contributions, the maintenance of health benefits and an agreement to let the union have jobs inspecting truck chassis.


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