Seattle, Tacoma ports urge PMA-ILWU mediation

Joseph Bonney, November 22, 2014,

The CEOs of the ports of Seattle and Tacoma have urged President Obama to assign a federal monitor to help settle a West Coast longshoremen’s contract dispute that the port officials said is having a “crippling effect” on commerce.


“We believe that mediation has become a critical and necessary tool because the parties have been unsuccessful in concluding negotiations after seven months,” port CEOs Theodore J. Fick of Seattle and John Wolfe of Tacoma said in a joint letter to President Obama.


The port officials’ letter followed recent appeals by business groups for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association to accept help from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.


The FMCS is an independent agency whose duties include providing neutral third party mediation services to help unions and employers resolve contract disputes. The agency assists with negotiation when asked by the union and employers.


Although the ILWU and PMA haven’t requested a mediator, the FMCS has been following the negotiations since before the previous West Coast longshore contract expired July 1.


Federal law requires unions and employers to file a notice of intent to open a collective bargaining agreement at least 30 days in advance of bargaining. After receiving the notice, the FMCS assigns a field monitor to follow developments and assist when requested.


The FMCS was credited with helping United States Maritime Alliance and the International Longshoremen’s Association break a bargaining deadlock and agree in early 2013 on a six-year contract that averted a threatened East and Gulf coast dock strike.


Federal mediators joined the USMX-ILA negotiations after employers and the union requested FMCS assistance.


A White House spokesman this week said the administration was confident that the PMA and ILWU also could eventually reach agreement “through the time-tested process of collective bargaining.”


Presidential intervention in collective bargaining disputes is rare, and usually occurs only after a strike or lockout. The Taft-Hartley Act allows the president to declare a labor disruption a national emergency and seek a back-to-work injunction that clears the way for an 80-day cooling-off period and other provisions designed to encourage a settlement.


In 2002, the George W. Bush administration invoked Taft-Hartley to end a PMA lockout of ILWU members following work slowdowns. Employers and the union reached a contract agreement soon afterward.


It was the first time a president had sought a back-to-work injunction under Taft-Hartley since 1978, when a court rejected a Carter administration request to for an injunction to halt a coal miners’ strike during the peak of the energy crisis.


Business groups have urged Obama to invoke Taft-Hartley if ports are shut by a strike or lockout. They have estimated that a West Coast port shutdown lasting more than a few days could have an economic impact of as much as a $2 billion a day on the U.S. economy, which last year had total GDP of $16.8 trillion.


The Seattle and Tacoma port CEOs said that although ports remain open, ILWU slowdowns already are crippling port-dependent companies. “Across many sectors from agriculture to manufacturing, workers are not getting paid during the Thanksgiving season and some businesses are closing down,” Fick and Wolfe wrote.


“Examples include: agricultural exporters are unable to get perishable goods to market resulting in major losses during peak season, manufacturers have had to shut down operations and send employees home, shippers and transloaders are incurring higher costs for trucker-standby time, and there are examples of storage and railcar demurrage due to backlogs at ports. We are also aware of shippers who have diverted their cargo to non-U.S ports, resulting in the loss of American jobs to foreign competitors,” the port CEOs’ letter said.


In addition to those costs, several container lines have revived plans to impose congestion surcharges of $1,000 per 40-foot container to cover costs of delays, including ships waiting outside ports, that have been aggravated by West Coast labor disruptions.


FMC Chairman Mario Cordero said the FMC staff is looking into the surcharges to ensure that they meet requirements to be clear and definite and based on specific criteria.


PMA-ILWU negotiations, meanwhile, have shifted into lower gear. Over objections from employers, the union broke off full-scale negotiations until Dec. 2 to focus on small-committee bargaining to resolve local issues.


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