West Coast Longshore Workers Agree to Talk About a Contract Extension

With the goal of keeping the West Coast ports from being hit with another labor snafu down the road, longshore workers and their port employers have agreed to discuss extending the current labor contract, which ends in 2019.

Extending the labor contract is a topic that has been bandied about since the beginning of the year and comes more than one year after West Coast ports were crippled with a labor slowdown and a chassis shortage during the 2015/2016 holiday season. The paralysis at the ports led to importers, manufacturers and retailers losing millions of dollars in sales during the crucial holiday season, which accounts for 20 percent to 30 percent of retailers’ annual sales.

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the port terminal operators and shipping lines that hire the longshore workers, said that in an effort to provide stability on the West Coast waterfront, it had proposed talks on a contract extension with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 20,000 full-time and part-time workers at West Coast ports.

Wade Gates, a PMA spokesman, said the ILWU agreed to hold meetings on the concept of a contract extension.

“As a next step, we will schedule a time in the next 30 to 60 days for PMA and ILWU leadership to discuss the topic,” he said.

The ILWU said more than 100 delegates from 30 West Coast ports from San Diego to Bellingham, Wash., met recently to consider the subject.

By a majority vote, the delegates on Aug. 11 voted to enter discussions with PMA representatives on the concept of a contract extension, said ILWU spokesperson Craig Merrilees in a statement.

“The caucus made a tough decision under current circumstances amid a wide range of concerns and opposing views on how to respond to PMA’s request,” said ILWU International President Robert McEllrath. “This is a directive to go and have discussions with the PMA and report back to the membership, and we’ll do just that, with the well-being of the rank and file, our communities, and the nation in mind.”

The current longshore worker contract runs from 2014 to July 1, 2019, but port employers would like to see it extended to ensure that port activities don’t get bogged down in labor negotiations during the 2019 holiday season.

Also, West Coast ports are facing stiff competition from the recently expanded Panama Canal, which spent $5.4 billion to build a third set of locks that can accommodate ships carrying up to 14,000 containers instead of the previous limit of 5,000 containers.

That means that larger cargo-container ships now can sail directly from China to New York, Miami or other East Coast ports without having to unload their cargo containers at West Coast ports, where they are placed on trucks or trains and then shipped across the country.