Teamsters initiate labor action at LA-Long Beach in midst of longshore talks

Grace M. Lavigne, July 6, 2014, Journal of Commerce

The Teamsters union, in the latest salvo in its long-sought plan to organize port truckers, took advantage of a critical juncture in contract negotiations for a new West Coast longshore agreement to set up pickets against three drayage companies operating at Los Angeles-Long Beach.


“Fed-up port drivers at the ports of Los Angeles/Long Beach walked off the job this morning to demand an end to wage theft and retaliation for trying to form a union,” the Teamsters said in a statement.


The effect of the action was unclear early in the day on the West Coast, especially because it was uncertain, at best, whether dockworkers would honor the pickets and thereby disrupt cargo operations at the nation’s largest container gateway.


With no contract in place and a tradition of bucking its leadership to make a point, some Southern California members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union may choose to honor Teamsters’ pickets despite a pledge by its leadership in San Francisco that “cargo will keep moving” on the U.S. West Coast. But with earlier Teamsters protests at the port there was little by way of disruption to show for the effort.


The deftly timed action by the Teamsters, coming days after the expiration of the current coastwise longshore contract, added a new element to a labor scenario that until how had been noticeably free of disruption as negotiations proceeded between the ILWU and port employers represented by the Pacific Maritime Association to replace the six-year collective bargaining agreement that expired on July 1. To the degree disruption was anticipated, it would have been triggered by the ILWU or its locals, not precipitated by another union like the Teamsters.


In a Twitter exchange over the weekend, some vocal ILWU members told told the JOC’s Peter Tirschwell that the longshore union could be expected to support the Teamsters by not crossing their picket lines: “Why do you think the Teamsters were at the ILWU union meeting last month pledging to support the longshoremen in July?” one longshoreman said. “The ILWU will stop work at the drop of a hat. Yes, they will honor any picket line, by reflex.”


But ILWU members speaking out on Twitter don’t represent the union overall, and it was unclear whether the views expressed in a few tweets meant the ILWU would in fact be supporting the Teamsters, a union that many longshoremen view as a rival for influence on the waterfront. Some on Twitter suggested the Teamsters’ pickets would be “informational” only, that is, for the purposes of handing out literature and not triggered by an actual strike, in which case longshoremen would not be violating their principle of never crossing picket lines if they showed up for work.


But the Teamsters’ plan to picket terminals today was not part of the ILWU’s script. Without a contract with the PMA, ILWU workers have no grievance procedure through which an arbitrator could determine whether the Teamsters’ picket is legitimate and should be honored, or whether a picket line constitutes a health and safety risk to the longshoremen. Thus if the longshoremen at Los Angeles or Long Beach refuse to cross a picket line, they will not get paid. Furthermore, without grievance machinery available, terminals affected by an ILWU refusal to cross the Teamsters’ pickets cannot seek relief.


Neither the ILWU nor the Teamsters returned calls to the JOC over the weekend to discuss the matter. The ILWU’s response had previously been that the union had no information about any Teamsters action being planned.


The vast majority of truck drivers at U.S. container ports are owner-operators who contract with trucking companies to haul containers to and from the ports. Since they are independent contractors, federal law bars them from joining unions, but the Teamsters contend that truckers at these companies are in fact employees and have been aggressively supporting individual legal claims seeking to have drivers recognized as employees, in which case they would be eligible to become union members.


The ILWU has not been supportive of Teamsters’ pickets calling for organizing port drivers in the past. In April, an ILWU arbitrator determined that a protest established by independent truck drivers at the Port of Long Beach was not a bona fide picket, and told the longshoremen to report to work. The dockworkers followed the arbitrator’s instructions and went to work; the protests thus had minimal impact, even though the dockworkers briefly honored the picket until the arbitrator could rule. Dockworker sources at the time said that the ILWU did not want to confuse BCOs, ports and shipping industry companies into believing the ILWU supports the actions of the Teamsters, especially in a sensitive contract year.


If ILWU locals do support the Teamsters’ picket today, cargo handling could come to a standstill at some terminals in the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex, which handles 40 percent of U.S. trade. This is what thousands of shippers had feared, which is why many of them diverted cargo to Canada or the U.S. East Coast well in advance. The ports have already faced “terrible congestion” from equipment shortages, as well as an unrelated slowdown at the TraPac terminal at Los Angeles, where longshoremen are “hard-timing”, or working much slower than normal, in protest over cargo handling automation that was allowed under a previously negotiated ILWU-PMA contract.


The ILWU and PMA announced in a joint statement on July 1 that although they had not reached agreement on a new contract by the deadline, “cargo will keep moving, and normal operations will continue at the ports until an agreement can be reached.” So far that has been the case, with the unrelated exceptions noted above.

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