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  February 5th, 2015 | Written by

U.S. West Coast Port Negotiations Continue Under Threat of Lockout

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Cargo activity at 29 U.S. West Coast seaports could come to a grinding halt in the coming days if a labor agreement being negotiated between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) isn’t quickly approved, signed, sealed and delivered. Without a new contract, employers could begin a lockout in as soon as five days, or as many as 10 days, according to PMA’s CEO James McKenna. “I couldn’t tell you exactly, but I can tell you it’s imminent.”

Negotiations to reach a new labor agreement between the PMA, which represents the ocean carriers and terminal operators at the ports, and the 20,000-plus dockworkers represented by the ILWU who handle cargo at the ports’ facilities, have dragged on for almost nine months. The ILWU has been working without a contract since July 1 of last year.

McKenna reiterated that the PMA does not want a lockout. “The system can only take so much. At some point, this will collapse under its own weight,” he said, referring to the cargo congestion that has clogged the affected ports and brought them to a tipping point. “It would make no sense to pay crews if there is no way to move cargo containers into the flow of commerce because dockside yards are too jammed.”

On the table is an offer from management for what McKenna has called an “all-in” 5-year contract that includes wage increases of about 3 percent annually, an increase in pension contributions, the maintenance of a “premium free” healthcare package that includes no co-pays and no deductibles for in-network benefits, and an agreement to let the union have jobs inspecting and maintaining container chassis. Wages for full-time dockworkers currently average $147,000 per year, plus full benefits.

“I hope the ILWU leadership will give very serious consideration to this contract offer, which I believe respects their members and gives us a clear path to conclude these talks. We owe it to workers and businesses across the nation to resolve our differences and get our ports moving again,” McKenna said. “This offer puts us all-in as we seek to wrap up these contract talks and return our ports to normal operations.

“We’ve dropped almost all of our remaining issues to help get this settled and the few issues that remain can be easily resolved,” said ILWU president, Robert McEllrath, regarding the threat of a lockout, adding that a lockout by management would be “reckless and irresponsible.”

Despite four weeks of participation by a federal mediator, the talks have remained heated with the PMA and the ILWU continuing to trade broadsides, with each laying the blame for the congestion at each other’s feet. The PMA asserts that the union coordinated work slowdowns that have exacerbated the congestion issue, a charge it says is backed by data showing that the volume of cargo moving through the impacted ports has been moving at about half its normal rate since last fall. The ILWU has countered the claim, charging that mismanagement, poor port infrastructure and a chronic shortage of the wheeled chassis used to move containers in and out of the ports are to blame for the situation.