Commentary: Living It Over in West Coast OCU Talks

Importers and exporters are perplexed by the seemingly endless contract negotiations between office clerical workers and waterfront employers in Southern California, and well they should be. Why have the negotiations wandered aimlessly for more than two years?

According to the Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor Employers’ Association, members of the Office Clerical Unit of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 earn an average of $96,900 a year, plus another $63,000 in benefits. What more could they want? Why couldn’t both parties simply agree to roll over the previous contract when it expired in April 2010 and make everyone happy?

OCU leaders say the big issue is job security, not higher wages and benefits. Employers counter that the OCU proposal would increase their costs 49 percent over the life of the contract. The OCU says employers plan to use computer technology to outsource OCU jobs overseas. Because much of the work involves the processing of shipping documents, outsourcing is certainly possible. Employers, however, have guaranteed the OCU “absolute protection against layoffs” resulting from technology.

What the OCU officers aren’t saying publicly is that their positions could be in jeopardy. Employers have offered to merge the OCU into ILWU Local 63, the marine clerks’ union that works the docks in Los Angeles-Long Beach. Some of the 14 individual OCU offices reportedly favor this proposal, known as Option C. The ILWU dockworkers union is silent on the issue. OCU officers oppose Option C because they could lose their lucrative positions.

If the OCU contract becomes an amendment to the ILWU Local 63 contract, office workers would gain financially, but they could lose certain benefits involving time off. The OCU enjoys more than 20 paid holidays and up to 15 paid sick days a year. Furthermore, the OCU demands that when an office worker is off, for whatever reason, a replacement worker be dispatched, even if the replacement isn’t needed. Office functions, employers say, could be handled easily if an OCU member calls in sick and is not replaced that day. The contract encourages and rewards absenteeism, employers charge. Employers want to end featherbedding, but also must realize they agreed to these provisions in previous contracts, and unions don’t like givebacks.

It’s always possible that a misstep in negotiations could result in the unpredictable union picketing at marine terminals. If ILWU dockworkers honor the pickets, cargo handling at the nation’s largest port complex would come to a halt.

The picture brightened somewhat in early August when both sides engaged in “respectful” negotiations for more than a week. A permanent solution to the OCU problem may not be possible without blowing up the contract and starting over. But that’s not practical at this point, so it looks like another unsatisfactory contract could be in the offing.

This same frustrating scenario then would be repeated when it’s time to negotiate the next contract.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at Follow him on Twitter @billmongelluzzo.

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