West Coast dockworkers and employers remain ‘far apart’

PMA says it is not close to a new contract with the ILWU.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and their employers are scheduled to resume contract talks in San Francisco Thursday, but have dampened expectations that an agreement on a new contract for West Coast dockworkers is imminent.

“Statements and rumors that our negotiations are ‘close’ to a final contract are not true. Even after seven months of negotiations, we remain far apart on several issues, and the union slowdowns continue to disrupt the movement of cargo through the ports,” said Wade Gates, a spokesman for the PMA.

“Business is being lost, and we are concerned that the damage is permanent, and shippers will be fearful to put their trust in the West Coast ports going forward,” he added.

Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the ILWU, said, “There’s nothing wrong with dispelling false rumors of a tentative agreement,” but he added that both sides would meet today and “remain committed to reaching a fair agreement as soon as possible.”

Last week, the PMA presented what sources said was a comprehensive proposal to the union, and after studying it through the weekend, the union sent a counter proposal to management prior to a union caucus that was held on Monday and Tuesday.

Merrilees said, “We look forward to seeing a response from the PMA to the latest union proposals.”

Merrilees continued, “Support from rank-and-file longshore workers remains strong and united. More than 90 democratically elected Longshore Caucus delegates who met in San Francisco on Dec. 15-16 unanimously adopted a resolution affirming efforts by the ILWU Negotiating Committee to reach a fair agreement.”

The slowdown in the port started occurring before the PMA started blaming ILWU workers, he said. 

“The key drivers of congestion are industry-based changes in operations and business models, including chassis outsourcing, which have paralyzed ports and made the docks much more dangerous for workers,” he said. “Despite the longstanding port congestion problems, both sides remain committed to reaching a fair agreement as soon as possible.”

The PMA and ILWU made their statements as the American Association of Port Authorities sent a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to “take the necessary steps to assign federal mediators to help resolve the ongoing contract negotiations.”

CDWCCongest_600Kurt Nagle, AAPA president and chief executive officer, said, “America’s seaports are absolutely vital to our economy, jobs and international competitiveness. At this tender stage of the economic recovery, our nation simply cannot afford disruptions, let alone a shutdown, of any part of the ports system. After seven months of labor negotiations without an agreement being reached, we believe that federal mediation is now necessary to prevent the significant economic repercussions that can occur whenever there is uncertainty and unpredictability in the movement of international commerce through our ports.”

Previous calls for federal mediation have come from the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Retail Federation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others.

On Monday, Rep. Bill Shuster, the Republican chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, asked Obama to do whatever he could to move the talks along, although Shuster didn’t mention any specific action be taken.

McDonald’s said it is only selling “small” portions of fries in Japan, citing the labor negotiations at West Coast ports as creating difficulty in getting regular deliveries of potatoes. Reuters also reported that the company is shipping some frozen potatoes by air.

Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, said,

“We’re now seeing the tangible evidence of the injury being inflicted upon agriculture exporters by the port slowdown.”

AgTC provided what it said was more evidence of damage to farmers from the port delays associated with the labor situation. It said growers in Washington and Oregon have lost money shipping Christmas trees to Asia because trees that sat too long in containers at West Coast ports are brittle and dropping leaves, and customers are refusing to pay.

“One wonders if the ILWU understands that by chasing cargo away from U.S. West Coast ports, they are denying their very own children jobs on the docks in future years,” said Friedmann.

He said exporters are already making the decision to permanently redirect business through ports on the East and Gulf Coasts by investing in new distribution facilities there rather than in Southern California, for example. And he said U.S. exporters of agriculture and forest products are likely to lose business to other countries or seek to move cargo through Canadian ports.