By John Gillie, May 1, 2013, The News Tribune
An arbitrator said that a picket line of retired longshore union workers that closed a key Port of Tacoma container terminal early Tuesday was not allowed under the provisions of the longshore contract, according to the group that was the subject of the protest.
The Washington United Terminal was reopened Tuesday afternoon after the retirees removed pickets from the facility on Port of Tacoma Road.
The pickets were trying to force action on their complaints regarding the Pacific Maritime Association’s alleged failure to pay retiree medical bills. The PMA represents waterfront employers including shipping lines and terminal operators.
The retirees, an arbitrator and officials from the longshore union and the PMA scheduled a meeting Tuesday afternoon after the picketing had halted activity at the terminal.
“The picket line was unfortunate, and ruled non bona fide by an arbitrator under the terms of the ILWU-PMA Agreement,” according to a news release from the PMA.
Some three dozen trucks were lined up along Port of Tacoma Road and in a nearby holding lot at midday Tuesday, awaiting the terminal’s reopening.
Port of Tacoma spokeswoman Tara Mattina said the port and the terminal operator were working late Tuesday afternoon to clear up the backlog of trucks.
Active longshore union workers had turned back after encountering the picket lines. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 23 provides workers who operate the container cranes, gatehouses and container carriers at the terminal.
Union members who had honored the picket line returned to work as a result of the arbitrator’s ruling, according to the PMA.
The Washington United Terminal is the Puget Sound area home of the Grand Alliance, a four-shipping-line consortium that moved last year from the Port of Seattle to the Port of Tacoma.
According to a leaflet being distributed by the pickets, they were protesting the failure of the Pacific Maritime Association to pay medical bills they and their family members have incurred since their retirement.
The PMA contracts with the ILWU on the West Coast to provide a waterfront workforce.
“PMA employers are taking away medical insurance from ILWU pensioners, their surviving spouses and children,” said the retiree group, the Pacific Coast Pensioners Association.
“Medical claims are being denied or reimbursements delayed unfairly,” the group said in its printed statement. “The problem is getting worse by the day.”
In its statement, the PMA said the ILWU-PMA health care plan has not changed since 2008, but the third-party administrator was replaced in January.
“Frustrations of some ILWU members stem from delays in processing claims due to the transition to the new third party administrator, to a backlog of over 100,000 unprocessed claims left over from the prior administrator, to medical providers misdirecting their claims, and to the receipt of more than 20,000 claims coastwide every week since the first of the year,” the statement read.
The port itself is not directly involved with the dispute. It leases the terminal to a third-party operator. Nonetheless, several port police officers were monitoring the picketing Tuesday from cars parked near the terminal gate.
The 10 or so pickets declined to discuss their dispute or why they chose to shut down the terminal, instead referring to the printed handout.
“As the independent organization for all ILWU retirees, the Pacific Coast Pensioners Association says we will not let this stand without a fight,” the handout declared.
“We pensioners have earned medical coverage from our lifetime work for the PMA employers. We retired with PMA’s commitment that we would have our medical bills paid fully and timely by the industry health plan,” the group said.
The pickets said some retirees are now being pursued by collection agencies to pay medical bills that PMA employers should be paying.
“This is causing our retirees, spouses and widows great fear and grief, pushing some into poverty,” the handout said.
One ship, the Hyundai Shanghai, was calling at the terminal Tuesday.
The terminal on the Blair Waterway serves the Grand Alliance, a consortium of four containership lines that share transpacific capacity. Those four shipping lines, OOCL, NYK, Zim and Hapag-Lloyd have helped raise Tacoma’s container business by more than 25 percent this year.
The port has encountered an unusual number of work interruptions in the past several weeks.
Two were caused by the deaths of two longshore workers on the docks. One was killed in an accident at Pierce County Terminal while maintaining a container crane. The other died, apparently of a heart attack, while working at the port’s APM Terminal.
Longshore union members traditionally halt operations after one of their members dies while working.