Hopes rise as PMA-ILWU talks move under federal mediator guidance

Bill Mongelluzzo, January 6, 2014, JOc.com

A new stage of contract negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Pacific Maritime Association launched today as the negotiations moved under the auspices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

 

Hopes were raised among long-suffering ports and cargo interests that mediation would help the negotiators achieve what they could not do on their own. Chris Lytle, executive director of the Port of Oakland, said federal mediation is a “key first step in breaking an eight-month negotiating impasse.”

 

The FMCS announced late Monday that both the ILWU and PMA had requested mediation, which is the key requirement for involvement by the federal agency. Today, a number of ports and importer-exporter groups announced their approval and optimism.

 

Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka said mediation will keep cargo flowing through West Coast ports while the ILWU and PMA negotiate a mutually-agreeable contract.

 

Expressing a need for action on behalf of cargo interests and other industry stakeholders, Port of Long Beach Chief Executive Jon Slangerup said “we urgently need a resolution” that will result in “restoring and improving productivity” at West Coast ports.

 

Indeed, importers and exporters are looking beyond simply a new labor contract and are demanding meaningful changes in work rules and practices that have caused productivity at West Coast ports to lag behind ports in Asia and Europe. Ports there are already handling the mega-ships with capacities of 18,000 20-foot container units that are expected to one day call in the U.S.

 

Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, said that if the ILWU uses the contracting process to prevent automation of marine terminals and to maintain “antiquated practices such as the hiring hall” and adds costs and inefficiencies to chassis maintenance and repair, the union will succeed in “accelerating the diversion of cargo away from U.S. West Coast ports.”

 

Organizations that represent shippers have become increasingly vocal in recent months as their members missed key shipping dates and spoke of lost sales because of West Coast port congestion and ILWU work slowdowns and walk-offs.

 

Noting that nearly 50 percent of the clothing and shoes sold in the U.S. are imported through Los Angeles-Long Beach, the American Apparel and Footwear Association said its members have had “critical product deliveries delayed by three to four weeks as a result of the labor dispute.” AAFA said the peak spring season for clothing and footwear is rapidly approaching, so speedy resolution of the contract is essential for its members.

 

Industry stakeholders have high hopes for the federal mediation process. JOC.com noted in a Q&A feature today that federal mediators in fiscal year 2013 were actively involved in 4,122 cases, and 84 percent of those were settled through mediation.

 

Although FMCS can not impose an agreement upon the parties, skilled mediators have demonstrated that by bringing a fresh and neutral view to the negotiations, they are oftentimes able to get both sides to budge from the rigid positions that had prevented a settlement.

 

The ILWU and PMA have been careful since contract negotiations began in May not to reveal the issues being discussed, but in general terms automation and jurisdiction, such as involving the maintenance and repair of chassis, are said to be issues under consideration. The waterfront is experiencing a sea-change in work practices as technology and automation are eliminating some jobs while creating new work opportunities.

 

The negotiations proceeded for several months without major disruptions after the previous contract expired on July 1, but beginning in late October, according to employers, ILWU work slowdowns designed to gain leverage in the negotiations brought the already congested ports close to a state of gridlock. PMA requested mediation on Dec. 22, and on Monday the ILWU did the same, which opened the door for the FMCS to provide its services.

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