Newsflash: Main ILWU-PMA negotiators not expected to meet until Dec. 2

No rapid conclusion is expected in labor contract talks that have been ongoing for six months.

Shippers should not expect much progress in the contract talks between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association in the next week and a half.  Sources tell American Shipper that the so-called “big table” talks between chief negotiators ILWU President Bob McEllrath and PMA President Jim McKenna are not expected to resume until Dec. 2. The negotiating committees have gone home.

Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the ILWU, said that there are still committee talks going on, and he added that throughout the bargaining process, there have been some periods where smaller groups have met. But one management source said he considered the talks going on now to be “inconsequential.”

The decision have the lead negotiators not meet for a dozen days after more than six months of contract talks is bad news for importers and exporters hoping for a quick agreement and rapid restoration of normal operations at West Coast ports.

The two sides have been meeting since May 12 to negotiate a contract to replace the one that expired on July 1.  Congestion at ports has intensified in recent weeks. Container shipping lines have complained about slowdowns by ILWU members and have said the union is not dispatching properly qualified workers. The union said it is being unfairly blamed for congestion, adding that the congestion has many causes not within its control — higher cargo volumes; shortages of chassis, truck drivers and rail capacity; and decisions by carriers to deploy larger ships and form new alliances without proper planning.

negotiation-sign_5In August, the ILWU and the PMA reached a tentative agreement on health benefits, and a source told American Shipper that since then, there has been progress in resolving many local issues, but there are still major issues that still have to be worked out. The ILWU has a caucus on Dec. 15, and if a tentative contract is worked out by then, it could be presented to the 100 or so members of the ILWU’s Longshore Caucus.

In recent weeks, frustrated shipper groups have been asking the White House to get involved in the talks by encouraging a settlement or the use of a federal mediator. Two weeks ago, 105 business groups asked President Obama to encourage the ILWU and the PMA “to begin working with a federal mediator through the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). This approach was successful in resolving difficult negotiations for East and Gulf Coast ports just last year. Even if both parties refuse federal mediation, we believe the FMCS would benefit from beginning to monitor the negotiations.”  

And this Monday, a group of 61 agricultural groups made a similar request to Obama, asking him to “use whatever means you have at your disposal, including bringing in a federal mediator to help resolve the contract negotiations. As you know, federal mediators have been very helpful in past port contract disputes.”
The union is “adamant they don’t want a mediator involved,” said one source. He added that the idea has not really been discussed since the employers know the union is opposed.
“Mediators are not a magicians with special powers,” said Merrilees. “The agreement has to be reached by the employers and the union, and there is nothing on the negotiating table that can’t be resolved by both parties seeking a fair agreement.”
A federal mediator would have to be requested by both parties, and there is no indication the Obama administration has asked the sides to consider mediation.

A statement issued by the White House this week referenced the negotiations between the ILA and employers represented by the U.S. Maritime Alliance (USMX) two years ago. The statement read, “Just as the two sides in that case were able to resolve their differences through the time-tested process of collective bargaining, we’re confident that management and labor at the West Coast ports can do the same thing. They’re at the table trying to work it out, and we’re confident that there’s a way forward. We continue to monitor the situation.”

That statement fell short for shippers hoping the White House would encourage the PMA and the ILWU to use a mediator as the ILA and the USMX did.

Dave Adam, the chief executive officer of USMX, said that in the negotiations with the ILA, “we might not have been interested in the assistance of the federal mediators during our bargaining struggles, but in the end, I think it worked out in everybody’s best interest. I am surprised that there is not a stronger insistence by the government that they assist in the bargaining.” But he added he was “not privy of any of the details of what goes on in the West,” including whether the FMCS has contacted the ILWU or the PMA to encourage use of a federal mediator.

The president does have the power to force mediation through use of provisions within the Taft-Hartley Act, but that is an extreme measure that has only been used 33 times in the past — 32 times after a strike and once in the case of the lockout in 2002, when employers at West Coast ports locked out members of the ILWU in response to what they said was a slowdown. Taft-Hartley has never been used in a situation when the parties are continuing to bargain.

If a strike by the ILWU or a lockout by employers occurs, President Obama could use Taft-Hartley Act to declare a national emergency and return the longshoremen and employers to the bargaining table, preventing a work stoppage for an 80-day, cooling-off period. If the president believes a labor dispute imperils national health or safety, he may appoint a “board of inquiry” to investigate a dispute. The attorney general can then ask a U.S. District Court to enjoin work stoppage; during that time, parties would try to reach a settlement with the aid of the FMCS.

Michael LeRoy, a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations and College of Law at the University of Illinois, noted that the ILWU “can generate bargaining pressure by slowing down work; and the union also knows from decades of experience that a full-blown strike will surely lead to an 80-day injunction.

“So, why doesn’t PMA just bring it on by locking out workers?” he continued. “Likely because this will play into the union’s hands — meaning that Obama might call their bluff and not intervene, at least for a week or so. This would result in a massive rerouting of shipping to Gulf and East Coast ports.”

Of course that kind of rerouting of cargo is more difficult than ever because so many containerships today are too large to pass through the Panama Canal.
LeRoy noted, “The only time a president has intervened in a lockout is 2002, when Bush did. In doing so, he basically said, ‘Even though this is a lockout, it’s really a strike precipitated by a work slowdown.’ The effect of the injunction was to mute the impact of a work stoppage.”

On Wednesday, representatives of worldwide dockworkers’ unions meeting in London pledged their support for the ILWU, and accused the PMA of “smearing” the ILWU and negotiating through the media.