Longshore union punts on federal mediation, requests direct talks with leadership

Labor leaders want to negotiate directly with industry counterparts, and are pointing back at industry for reasons for dock delays.

Steve Wilhelm, December 29, 2014, Puget Sound Business Journal

Let’s talk face-to-face.

That’s the essence of a counter-proposal from longshore union leaders on Monday morning, after they resisted a week of pressure to bring contract issues to mediation.

In a release Monday, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) President Robert McEllrath said his team needs direct conversations with counterpart leaders from the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents ocean carriers and terminal operators.

“Both sides need the right people in the room to get things finalized,” said McEllrath in a statement. “Sure, my counterpart, Jim McKenna, has been involved in negotiations from the start, but all the decisions are made by the carriers sitting on PMA’s board of directors.”

In the letter, McEllrath contends that the 11 members of the PMA board are chief officers of carriers and cargo terminals, and that so far union leaders have not had a single face-to-face meeting with these leaders.

The union, by contrast, has been sending its “principal decision makers,” he said. “Indirect negotiations won’t get us over the finish line. The few issues that remain unresolved relate directly to the carriers and these key carriers need to come to the table.”

The two sides have been negotiating a new labor contract for eight months, and dock workers have been working without a contract since July 1.

But the PMA retaliated with its own statement Monday afternoon, reiterating its position that mediation is needed, and claiming that negotiations are far apart.

“Unfortunately, the characterization that the PMA and ILWU have only a ‘few issues’ left to resolve is inaccurate,” the PMA statement said. “Significant issues remain unresolved, including wages, pensions, jurisdiction and work rules.”

In a rare opening to some of the details of the issues, the PMA said the only area where there is agreement is the health care plan.

“The PMA leadership team has offered a ‘no-takeaways’ proposal that includes wage and pension increases on top of the ILWU’s robust compensation package. The average full-time ILWU worker currently earns in excess of $147,000, and is eligible for a pension with a maximum annual benefit of nearly $80,000,” the PMA said. “Current proposals would increase these even further.”

THE ILWU has resisted calls for mediation, and McEllrath is clearly not interested in handing over control to an outside party.

Last week the CEOs of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma issued a letter calling for mediation, saying that cargo movement had been slowed 30 percent to 40 percent. This has damaged Washington exporters, such as Christmas tree growers, who weren’t able to get their product across the Pacific to customers.

“We understand that PMA has publicly called for mediation,” said an email from ILWU spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent. “We are in the process of considering whether or not mediation would be productive, or if other measures such as the point of our release might serve the industry better. The ILWU is always open to using productive tools and ideas in obtaining a fair agreement.”

The union is trying to counter a widespread impressions that union workers are to blame for slowing the movement of cargo over the West Coast.

Monday’s press release listed nine reasons why those problems are the result of “a number of industry-based decisions and mistakes,” including a shortage of container chassis, that are not within the control of the ILWU.

A paragraph in the union release focuses directly at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma:

“Last week, PMA member employers in the ports of Seattle and Tacoma compounded 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,” the release said. “By refusing to order manpower for night shifts, PMA unilaterally and self-servingly restricted work to eight hours a day at the peril of both importers and local exporters.”

But the PMA countered by directly blaming the union for the slowdowns.

“The ILWU’s escalating rhetoric on congestion is nothing more than a smokescreen for its slowdown activities,” it said. “In the Pacific Northwest, the ILWU slowdowns – which have reduced productivity by as much as 60 percent — created a meltdown that has backed up cargo for weeks.”


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