Longshore Union Wants to See More Shipping Line Honchos at the Negotiating Table

Talks between longshore workers and their employers have been slogging along since last May with no end in sight for a new contract that would replace the last contract that expired July 1.

The employers, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association, would like to see federal mediators come in and nudge the negotiations along.

But the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents nearly 20,000 workers at 29 West Coast ports, said it thinks having more top executives from the PMA board at the negotiating table would produce a better dialogue between the two sides.

The ILWU complains that during months of negotiations, the PMA’s principal decision makers have not had any direct participation in negotiations since bargaining began. “Both sides need the right people in the room to get things finalized,” said Robert McEllrath, ILWU president and chairman of the union’s negotiating committee. “Sure, my counterpart, Jim McKenna [PMA president and chief executive], has been involved in negotiations from the start, but all the decisions are made by the carriers sitting on PMA’s board of directors.”

The board’s 11 members are primarily shipping carriers and the chief officers of the largest West Coast port terminals that employ the dockworkers. “Indirect negotiations won’t get us over the finish line. The few issues that remain unresolved relate directly to the carriers and these key carriers need to come to the table,” McEllrath said.

But the PMA said the two sides have more than just a few issues to work out. “Significant issues remain unresolved, including wages, pensions, jurisdiction and work rules,’ the PMA said in a press release. “The only major coast-wide issue on which we’ve reached tentative agreement is the health care plan—already one of the most generous in America. Even with the tentative health care agreement—identified by the ILWU as its No. 1 priority when negotiations began in May—the union has engaged in debilitating work slowdowns over the past two months at terminals up and down the coast.”

The PMA maintains its board and coast committee members have been intimately involved in the negotiations, starting months before talks began in May to establish a new six-year contract.

Traffic jam

Meanwhile, the congestion problem at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach shows no sign of going away even though the big push to bring in holiday merchandise is over.

As of Dec. 29, there were five cargo container ships anchored off the breakwater of the nation’s largest port complex that handles more than 40 percent of all the cargo containers arriving in the United States. Anchored ships beyond the breakwater almost never happen at this time of year and is only indicative of the slowdown on the waterfront.

“The delays we have been experiencing are still happening,” said Lee Peterson, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach. “Reports are of one and two-week delays.”

A shortage of chassis to transport the cargo containers to rail yards and warehouses has been a problem for months as shipping lines got out of the chassis business. Now four companies lease out chassis, but there have been kinks in the system at the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles. At some terminals there are not enough chassis and at others there are too many.

In October, the Port of Long Beach directed its staff to come up with a plan to introduce 3,000 more chassis into the 100,000-strong chassis pool, but that still isn’t meeting everyone’s needs.

On Dec. 29, the Port of Long Beach opened a temporary storage facility at Pier S on Terminal Island. The idea is to provide more space to place empty cargo containers, remove their chassis and use them to pick up new loads of incoming cargo containers.

The 30-acre site is operated by Pasha Stevedoring & Terminals and open until March 31. On the first day of operation, no one was using the temporary facility, Peterson said. It costs $5 a day to store empty containers, no matter what their size.

The Port of Los Angeles has been working individually with terminals to lease extra storage space for empty containers. APL and Yusen Terminals have taken advantage of this arrangement, Port of Los Angeles spokesman Phillip Sanfield said.

The Los Angeles port also has extra land available on Terminal Island to have more space to repair and maintain chassis, but the ILWU contract must be in effect for that to happen. “Everyone thought the [labor] contract would be in place by now,” Sanfield said.

Also, everyone thought the congestion problem would be under control by now, but it will probably be heating up again. “In the next few weeks,” Sanfield said, “we will be looking at the pre-push for the [Chinese] lunar new year.”