Monday, November 2, 2009

November 2009 Fidley Watch: Setting Examples

An earthquake near Samoa and subsequent tsunami in late September killed hundreds of people and displaced thousands. Two weeks later, fifteen shipping containers packed with dry foods, medicine, blankets and other essentials were loaded onto a ship at the Port of Long Beach, bound for victims in tsunami-stricken Samoa Islands.

According to the Port of Long Beach, the effort was led by International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 13 members and supported with in-kind donations from the Port of Long Beach, terminal operator International Transportation Service (ITS), and shipping lines Hamburg Sud and Polynesia Line. Union members donated their time to load the containers and the Port and its customers waived related fees. Our hat is off to Local 13 and their service in Samoa’s time of need. Their actions serve as a good example for other groups during these difficult economic times.

A different type of example is being set on the East Coast, where many are wondering why New York’s Local 333 decided the current economic climate (September unemployment hovering at 9.8 percent) was a good time to call a strike against a small, two-tug, family-run company. Kosnac Floating Derrick and Local 333 had been engaged in good faith bargaining since their contract ran out last April, but the issue of 24-hour manning of tugs pushing unmanned aggregate barges remained unresolved. The company wanted to drop one deckhand and allow the engineer to pick up some of his load, while the Local believed this practice was inherently unsafe due to the long hours and the dangers involved in barge work. Local 333 president William Harrigan says, “You can’t do it with two deckhands– it’s suicide.”

Company president Veronica Kosnac Raffone says it needs a level playing field to remain profitable. She notes that Kosnac manned its tugs with larger crews than required by Coast Guard regulations and was losing business to competitors operating with four-man crews, whether they were non-union companies, unionized companies not abiding by the terms of their contracts, or unionized companies who already had union permission for four-man crews. She noted that, under the old contract, Kosnac was required to add a third deckhand after only six hours but local competitor Henry Marine Service, Inc was not required to add a third deckhand until the tug has been out for 15 hours, and K-Sea Transportation runs one of its tugs with four men while in New York harbor.

According to Union spokesman Steve Oravets, “The Coast Guard here in New York does not enforce the regulations on towing vessels.” He says the Coast Guard makes great use of its Public Relations Branch, ‘spinning’ their “failure to enforce.”

“I’m aware of the correspondence between Local 333 and the Coast Guard regarding manning on a variety of vessels,” says Commander Gregory Hitchen, Chief of Operations for Coast Guard Sector New York. Commander Hitchen believes there may be “…a difference of opinion with respect to requirements” and notes that his office has clarified federal manning requirements for Local 333. “We enforce the applicable federal regulations throughout the port of New York and New Jersey,” he says.

At press time in late October, Mrs. Raffone, her husband and her brother continue to operate Kosnac’s tugs with pick-up crews and three union members who have come back to work while the company’s other union members picket outside. She suggested that the Local would serve its members better by organizing other companies and enforcing existing contracts, instead of picking on a loyal union company.

In this fragile economic climate, few companies are hiring tug crews. Will Local 333 be able to find employment for the union crews that were working for Kosnac up until September? Perhaps the East Coast local can learn from the example set by the West Coast group: An injury to one is an injury to all.

-Hugh Ware contributed to this editorial.

Chris Philips, Managing Editor