Delegates representing West Coast waterfront labor agreed yesterday to begin talks with management about extending the current five-year labor contract beyond its June 30, 2019, expiration date, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents workers at 30 ports, said.
The vote by a majority of 100 ILWU delegates came in response to a request by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents waterfront management, to discuss a possible contract extension. The delegates "made a tough decision under current circumstances, amid a wide range of concerns and opposing views on how to respond to PMA's request," said ILWU President Robert McEllrath in a statement.
McEllrath said the vote amounts to union representatives having discussions with the PMA and then reporting back to the rank and file.
That both sides are discussing a contract extension nearly three years before its expiry reflects the contentiousness of the last round of contract talks, and the need to ensure that a backstop—namely a contract extension—be in place to keep the docks operating normally should upcoming negotiations stall. There was no language in the last contract requiring a contract extension, a factor that added to the anxiety surrounding the negotiations. The current contract was finally ratified in May 2015 after a nine-month dispute that paralyzed West Coast seaports and forced the Obama Administration to dispatch Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez to the West Coast in an effort resolve the dispute. The current contract is retroactive to June 2014.
In a statement, the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, which represents U.S. agricultural- and forest-products exporters, said it supports labor and management's efforts to "extend the current contract, in order to restore our foreign customers' confidence in our ability to be affordable and dependable suppliers."
Delays and backlogs at West Coast ports during the dispute kept many agriculture exports from being shipped in a timely manner. The group warned that businesses that import U.S. goods would not simply endure the slowdown, and would look to other sources of supply from foreign competitors.