Thursday, September 25, 2014

Officials: Lengthy Labor Talks Cause Instability

By Mark Edward Nero

The ongoing talks between the Pacific Maritime Association and International Longshore & Warehouse Union are causing instability at West Coast ports, even though there has been no strike or work stoppage associated with the talks, one port executive says.

When asked during a panel discussion on West Coast port issues about keeps him awake at night, Port of Oakland Executive Director Chris Lytle didn’t hesitate before answering.

“The biggest issue that I worry about is the labor agreement,” Lytle said when asked by the panel’s moderator, Horizon Lines President & CEO Steve Rubin.

“It just gives us inherent instability when the parties are still at the table after three or four months and still talking about the issues, even without a lot of disruption,” Lytle said during the Sept. 22 panel, which took place at the annual Intermodal Association of North America Expo in Long Beach, Calif.

“I think it’s incumbent upon the PMA and the union to get together, get this thing signed and get it agreed to and put some stability back in that arena,” he said.

Talks on a new labor pact began May 12, just seven weeks before the end of the previous six-year deal.

The previous pact, which covered almost 20,000 longshore workers at 29 ports up and down the West Coast, expired at 5 pm on July 1, but although no contract extension has been ratified, both sides have agreed to keep operating under the provisions of the recently expired contract for the time being.

Although there are no signs of a union strike or management lockout looming, there is a history of contentious talks between the PMA and the ILWU, which represents dockworkers in California, Oregon and Washington. Neither the 2008 or 2002 talks were resolved until after the contracts’ expirations.

In August, however, the two sides announced that they had reached a tentative agreement on one aspect of their contract talks: health benefits. In a joint statement released Aug. 26, the two sides said that the agreement on health benefits is subject to agreement on the other issues in the negotiations. The parties say they’ve agreed not to discuss the terms of the tentative agreement while negotiations continue.

In a session on port labor agreements during this week’s IANA conference, David Adam, chair and CEO of the US Maritime Alliance, the East Coast equivalent of the PMA, said that part of the problem with maritime labor negotiations is that the two sides don’t sit down at the table early enough.

“You see it in the PMA bargaining right now and you saw it in our bargaining two years ago ... we start bargaining three, four or five months before the expiration of the contract, and the reality is the work needs to be done years in advance,” Adam said.

“My goal is to start talking about things that are important to both sides and trying to get those things off the table before we actually get into the contract expiration,” he explained. “The reality is that if you don’t meet before (the contract’s expiration), you end up meeting after. The more work you do in advance, the less work you have to do after the fact.”