ILWU, PMA continue war of words in tit-for-tat press releases

Bill Mongelluzzo, December 29, 2014, JOC.com

 

International Longshore and Warehouse Union President Robert McEllrath today challenged ocean carrier executives to become directly involved in contract negotiations in order to end the impasse that has existed since the previous West Coast waterfront contract expired on July 1. The Pacific Maritime Association shot back that the ILWU’s statement “only underscores the need” for federal mediation in the negotiations which the employer group called for on Dec. 22.

 

So far the negotiations between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association have involved local union representatives and international officers on one side of the so-called Big Table and the PMA’s negotiating team on the other.

 

“Sure, my counterpart, Jim McKenna, has been involved in negotiations from the start, but all decisions are made by the carriers sitting on PMA’s board of directors. Indirect negotiations won’t get us over the finish line,” McEllrath said.

 

The PMA responded that the union’s charges are inaccurate. “Our board and coast committee members, who represent carriers and terminal operators, have been intimately involved in these negotiations, starting in the months leading up to the contract talks and in the seven months since the talks began,” the employers’ group said Monday.

 

The PMA’s board is comprised of 11 representatives from shipping lines and terminal operators. This is the same negotiating structure that has handled past contracts — all of which in recent times have been resolved in a shorter time than the current negotiations, which began on May 12.

 

Following the PMA’s request for federal mediation in the negotiations, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service reached out to the ILWU to seek its response. The ILWU and PMA must both ask for mediation if FMCS is to become involved in the talks. In its statement on Monday the ILWU was silent on the issue of Federal mediation.

 

The ILWU has been working without a contract since the previous West Coast contract expired on July 1. The PMA has charged that beginning in late October the union has used the suspension of the contract’s grievance machinery to orchestrate work slowdowns in the Pacific Northwest and in Los Angeles-Long Beach. The PMA stated that the work slowdowns have reduced productivity by 30 to 50 percent, resulting in vessels backing up at anchor, agonizing trucker delays at the gates and delays of weeks in delivering both imports and exports that have led to economic harm to shippers. The PMA said that last week the ILWU slowdowns were extended to Oakland where several ships were backed up at anchor Monday.

 

The ILWU all along has denied that its members are engaging in work slowdowns. Rather, the union blames port congestion problems that it says are caused by carriers and which began earlier this year before the contract negotiations got underway. The ILWU listed nine developments that have contributed to the congestion problems that are now crippling all of the major West Coast gateways.

 

Those developments include a decision by the carriers to no longer provide chassis to their customers, carriers outsourcing their chassis pools to remote locations, terminals hoarding of chassis and shippers and consignees using containers on chassis as mobile storage units, thus exacerbating the equipment shortage problem.

 

It is telling that the union cited chassis as four of the nine reasons why West Coast ports are congested. Carriers, which as members of the PMA are employers of the ILWU, got out of the chassis business because of the huge costs involved in purchasing and maintaining chassis. They sold their assets to chassis leasing companies, which are not PMA members and therefore have no direct relationship with the ILWU. Hundreds of ILWU members are employed in the maintenance and repair of chassis, and the union now fears that the leasing companies will hire non-ILWU workers to do chassis M&R work at off-dock locations.

 

Other causes of the congestion cited by the ILWU as contributing to port delays are the deployment of mega-ships that have overwhelmed the ability of terminals to handle the cargo surges, carriers operating in vessel-sharing alliances, which end up “squeezing terminal operators and port authorities,” and terminal operators and stevedores “squeezing labor on traditionally negotiated jurisdiction in response to pressure from carriers.” ILWU jurisdiction is an important issue in the negotiations.

 

The ILWU also cited truck driver shortages caused by drivers leaving harbor drayage because they can not survive on a “piecemeal wage model” of being paid by the trip as another cause of port congestion. Employers counter that ILWU slowdown tactics, including what the PMA has called excessive safety inspections of chassis, are a major reason why truck turn times have escalated to two hours or longer.

 

Finally, the ILWU cited a shortage of rail capacity to serve West Coast ports as the railroads devote a number of locomotives to “energy trains” that take up space in an already challenged rail infrastructure as another reason why the ports are congested.

 

The ILWU said that last week in Seattle and Tacoma employers compounded the congestion problems “by refusing to use critical night shifts for import-export cargo in an apparent effort to provoke an even deeper congestion crisis that they hoped to blame on the ILWU.” Employers say they can not afford to run extra shifts when their numbers comparing current productivity levels with those of pre-negotiation times demonstrate they are paying for much more labor to handle an incremental increase in cargo.

 

According to the PMA website www.pmanet.org employers at all West Coast ports paid 13 percent more man-hours this year through Dec. 19 than during the same period in 2013, yet container volume in the 10 months through October, which is the latest month available, increased only 3 percent on the coast.

 

The PMA in its statement issued Monday also took issue with a statement by the ILWU that only a few issues remain to be resolved in the negotiations. “Significant issues remain unresolved, including wages, pensions, jurisdiction and work rules,” the employers stated.

 

“The ILWU’s escalating rhetoric on congestion is nothing more than a smokescreen for its slowdown activities,” and underscores the need for federal mediation, PMA stated.

 

The union responded that it is in the process of considering whether or not mediation would be productive, or if other measures would serve the industry better.

 

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