Uncertain prospect for 2014 ILWU-PMA agreement

By: | at 09:39 AM | Channel(s): Ports & Terminals  Liner Shipping  

Presidents of the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) and the PMA (Pacific Maritime Association) said they are looking at collaborative solutions toward achieving a West Coast longshore agreement in 2014. However, challenges to ILWU jurisdiction over port related jobs on the West Coast and the ILWU disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO create new uncertainty.

One significant concern is whether new maintenance jobs related to automation, where workers could be represented by other AFL-CIO affiliates, may become the focus of negotiations between the PMA and the ILWU. Jurisdictional disputes have already disrupted shipping at Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington.

Speaking at the Propeller Club in Oakland, California on September 19th, Jim McKenna, president of the PMA, told participants that he is concerned about the loss of shipping from the Panama Canal expansion and from new Pacific Coast container terminals in Canada and Mexico. He said the industry needs to be “more competitive to meet these challenges.”

He noted that investments to improve container handling facilities at Long Beach and Los Angeles are likely to assure the two ports will be ‘alright’, but other U.S. West Coast ports such as Oakland, Portland and Seattle-Tacoma may face a loss of shipping.

McKenna said that 40% of U.S. West Coast shipping was “discretionary” and could be lost to Atlantic and Gulf Coast ports with the Panama Canal expansion or to new competitors from Canada and Mexico.

Robert McEllrath, president of the ILWU, agreed with McKenna about the challenges to West Coast shipping and said that he supported changes in automation to make the ports more efficient. He said that people looking for the 2014 negotiations to be confrontational are likely to be disappointed.

However, he then told Propeller Club members that the ILWU decision to withdraw from the AFL-CIO was made “because other unions [AFL-CIO affiliates] were trying to take our work away. We will not tolerate any challenges to our jurisdiction.”

In August, the ILWU was told to desist from attempts to disrupt work currently being done at the Port of Portland by unionized electrical workers connecting and disconnecting refrigerated containers. In a controversial decision, The NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) ruled that two jobs handling reefer containers at Portland’s Terminal 6 fall under the jurisdiction of the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers (IBEW) and not the ILWU.

McEllrath wrote a letter stating: “In Oakland and Tacoma, another affiliate is trying to use a recent NLRB ruling against one of our employers to take over ILWU jobs with some of our other employers.” The ILWU is now appealing this ruling.

Robert McEllrath’s August 29th letter announcing “ILWU Disaffiliation” to AFL-CIO president, Richard Trumka, blames the AFL-CIO for encouraging a rival union to take work away from the ILWU. He cited a dispute in 2011 at a grain terminal at the Port of Longview, Washington. “A particularly outrageous raid occurred in 2011, when one affiliate slipped in to fill longshore jobs at the new EGT grain facility in the port of Longview, Washington and then walked through ILWU picket lines for six months until we were able to secure this critical longshore jurisdiction.”

In his letter, McEllrath told Trumka: “Your office added insult to injury by issuing a directive to the Oregon State Federation to rescind its support of the ILWU fight at EGT, which threatened to be the first marine terminal on the West Coast to go non-ILWU.”

The ILWU signed an agreement with EGT at a reduced cost relative to standard ILWU agreements, according to a maritime labor expert who asked not to be identified. The expert said the concessions made by the ILWU with EGT encouraged grain terminal operators at Vancouver and Portland to seek similar concessions: “The ILWU refused, and this was a factor in the two terminal operators locking the ILWU out of their facilities. There were other activities and allegations that precipitated the lock out, but it stems from the grain terminals asking for essentially the same deal as the EGT deal, and the ILWU refusing.”

McEllrath cited other offenses: “Throughout the Pacific Northwest, we are daily seeing still other affiliates blatantly cross the picket lines of ILWU members who have been locked out for months by the regional grain industry.”

McEllrath warned that the situation is worsening at a time when the ILWU prepares for contract negotiations in 2014: “We see this situation only getting worse as the ILWU is about to start West Coast longshore negotiations and face the challenge of the ports soon being run by robotics and computer-operated machinery over the next five to ten years.”

McEllrath goes on to warn: “The survival of the ILWU and the job security of our members depend on our having these remaining jobs, which will mostly involve the servicing and maintenance of the robotics and other machinery. These are jobs that directly replace longshoremen, jobs that ILWU employers control and jobs that fall under jurisdictional provisions of our Contract. We will not let other affiliates jeopardize our survival and block our future as the primary waterfront workforce.”

Go It Alone

The ILWU has never been afraid to go it alone. The maritime law expert believes this statement in the letter disaffiliating itself from the AFL-CIO reflects the ILWU belief that it now has more freedom to challenge other unions over maintenance and repair jobs.

The AFL-CIO, in their response to the ILWU, has indicated that locals of the ILWU cannot seek “solidarity charters” and will be ousted from local and state labor councils.

The impact on 2014 ILWU-PMA contract negotiations remains to be seen. Will the PMA be caught in the middle of a battle over jobs between the AFL-CIO and the ILWU?

It is also worth bearing in mind that the ILA (International Longshoremens’ Association) is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO. Recent reports have surfaced that the ILA is also considering leaving the AFL-CIO, which would essentially remove organized waterfront labor from North America’s mainstream labor movement.

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American Journal of Transportation