February 24, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
After a nine-month contract dispute marked by what one union member called “a series of mini-lockouts,” the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association announced a tentative five-year deal Feb. 20.
Neither party would release specific details of the proposed contract, which will cover all 29 West Coast ports, including Los Angeles/Long Beach, Oakland, San Diego, Seattle and Tacoma in Washington, and Portland, Oregon. It was brokered with the aid of Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, and the implied threat that if the dispute escalated into a full-scale lockout or strike, President Barack Obama could intervene under the Taft-Hartley Act.
“We are pleased to have reached an agreement that is good for workers and for the industry," PMA President James McKenna and ILWU President Bob McEllrath said in a joint statement. "We are also pleased that our ports can now resume full operations."
The West Coast ports, which employ about 20,000 ILWU members, handle about a quarter of U.S. international trade, including more than two-thirds of its Asian imports. The dispute left as many as 30 ships at a time waiting offshore at Los Angeles/Long Beach, as port management halted ship-unloading operations on the night shift and for two weekends earlier this month. After the union decided that only certified crane operators could lift containers out of ships, management accused it of staging a slowdown, and said they weren’t going to pay night and weekend premiums while the union was conducting a “strike with pay.”
“We weren’t slowing down, we just stopped speeding up,” Clarence Thomas, a former official of ILWU Local 10 in Oakland, told LaborPress.
Management was “very aggressive,” acting “as if they’re a Walmart employer,” he added. Workers responded by being very careful about operating safely—which may have looked like a slowdown, but with cranes slinging full metal containers around, “if anything should nudge you on that waterfront, it’s going to kill you or maim you.”
The main issue disputed between the ILWU and management was whether the union could replace arbitrators at the end of a contract. The union charged that some of them were biased.
The underlying problem was speedup, says Thomas. Cargo ships are now much bigger than they were several years ago, he explains. They now carry up to 15,000 20-foot containers, while older vessels held up to 8,000. Sometimes there are two different types of container on the same ship, which makes unloading them more complicated. And “the employers got out of the chassis business”—instead of shipping companies owning the trucks that carry the containers, drivers now work for companies that classify them as independent contractors, so there are not enough truckers.
“A lot of the ports are maxed out,” he says. “The employer has attempted to put the congestion problem on the longshore workers, which is totally inaccurate.”
The port truckers of Los Angeles and Long Beach “are breathing a collective sigh of relief” at the news of the tentative contract, the Teamsters Port Division said in a statement. “Because the vast majority of port truck drivers are misclassified as independent contractors, every day that the ports are shut down, the drivers have gone further into the financial hole because they are paid by the load, and—even when the port is shut down—the boss has continued to deduct the cost of the truck, insurance, and even parking of the company truck at their own yard from their paychecks. This is wage theft and it is illegal. The longshoremen have fought for more than 100 years for a seat at the economic table; it is now the truckers’ turn.”
Meanwhile, the flow of goods was slowed enough so that Honda complained it couldn’t get parts for its plants in Indiana and Ohio, retailers said they weren’t receiving imports, and agribusiness said it couldn’t export oranges, nuts, and meat. All were clamoring for federal intervention.