U.S. West Coast waterfront labor and management have asked the federal government to mediate a dispute over a new collective bargaining agreement, signaling the most important step yet in resolving an eight-month battle that has showed few signs of ending without outside help.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) jointly petitioned the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) to intervene in an effort to reach a new agreement, FMCS said in a statement last night. Contract talks under FMCS auspices will resume "as soon as possible," FMCS said. Deputy Director Scot Beckenbaugh will oversee the negotiations, according to the independent federal agency. Beckenbaugh was involved in successfully mediating the 2013 dispute between the International Longshoreman's Association (ILA) and East and Gulf Coast ship management.
ILWU and PMA had to jointly agree to FMCS mediation before the agency would intervene. PMA requested before Christmas that the two sides submit the dispute to mediation. ILWU, which represents about 14,000 members at 29 West Coast ports, just recently came onboard.
ILWU members have been working without a contract ever since the prior six-year compact expired July 1. The two sides continued to bargain through the summer and early fall, and port operations functioned as normal. However, the situation deteriorated in early November after PMA said ILWU had begun to stage deliberate work slowdowns at the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma that cut terminal productivity at the ports in half.
In the ensuing days, PMA accused ILWU of orchestrating similar slowdowns at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and at the Port of Oakland, leading to increased delays and backlogs at the ports. ILWU has denied the allegations, saying West Coast port congestion is due to the lack of chassis equipment needed to move containers to and from vessels and terminal operators' inability to handle larger ships calling at the ports.
A week ago Monday, ILWU called on PMA to bring its 11 board members directly to the bargaining table, saying that the few issues left to be resolved are related to carrier operations and that the board is comprised of carrier and terminal CEOs. The request fell on deaf ears at PMA, with the group saying the two sides remain far apart on every issue except for a tentative agreement on health benefits.
Two days later, terminal operators at Los Angeles and Long Beach said they would cancel two of three crews that normally work the night shifts loading and unloading vessels. PMA said it made no sense to authorize the assignment of a full retinue of crews to work vessels whose freight wouldn't be discharged anyway.
In the past two months, virtually every business group has urged the White House to intervene to resolve the dispute. One group, the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, which represents agriculture and forest products exporters, went so far as to urge President Obama to call out the National Guard to man the vessels if ILWU members could not be forced back to work. The labor unrest has dramatically curtailed U.S. export volumes, forcing foreign buyers to seek other suppliers and perhaps wreaking permanent damage on companies that depend on exports for their livelihoods, the group has claimed.
Peter Friedmann, head of the coalition, said the FMCS' involvement does not allay his concerns about the future. "West Coast U.S. ports have become over the past decade the least productive, most prone to labor disruption, most expensive, and least automated ports in the developed world," he said today in e-mail.
The status quo undermines U.S. ports' competitiveness as foreign buyers will look to foreign sources "with more dependable transport networks and infrastructure" to provide the goods their consumers need, he said.
Friedmann said he would consider the current talks a success if they result in U.S. ports being more efficient, automated, and productive. "When that begins to happen, we will be encouraged," he said.
A full-time ILWU worker earns, on average, $142,000 annually in wages and a benefits package valued at about $82,000 a year, according to PMA data. Senior foremen and clerks can make more than $200,000 a year. The last two contracts, in 2002 and 2008, opened the door for more automation, but port users say much more is needed for operations to become more efficient and less costly.