Commentary: Beyond Sept. 30

In one respect, the breakdown of International Longshoremen’s Association contract negotiations was a surprise. In another, it wasn’t.

Yes, negotiations for a coastwide master contract were progressing. ILA President Harold Daggett had expressed confidence. James Capo, chairman and CEO of United States Maritime Alliance, said things were moving in the right direction.

Lurking at the edge of the negotiating table, however, was a decades-long accumulation of work rules and practices, mostly in supplemental local contracts, that USMX said must be changed to keep East and Gulf Coast ports competitive.

Management officials had warned for at least two years they were determined to curb inefficiencies, particularly at the Port of New York and New Jersey, where staffing requirements are so high that 40 percent of hours paid are for time in which no work is done.

On the eve of a planned three-day bargaining session, USMX sought an ILA commitment to negotiate changes to these and other rules and practices. Daggett refused. He accused employers of a “take-it-or-leave it” attitude and trying to undo decades of union gains.

At an impasse, negotiators broke off talks. “It looks like we’re going to have a strike,” Daggett told the JOC.

Shippers were left in the lurch. Many rushed to advance bookings or divert cargo to other coasts, despite higher transportation and inventory costs. Others are sitting tight, hoping any strike or lockout would be short.

With the Sept. 30 contract expiration just five weeks before Election Day, a work stoppage will quickly become a political issue. The threat of economic disruption would put the Obama administration under pressure to seek a Taft-Hartley Act injunction that would force dockworkers back to work for an 80-day cooling-off period.

USMX and the ILA are looking ahead to that possibility. Their statements after the breakdown in negotiations sounded like trial lawyers laying groundwork for an appeal.

In this case, their appeal would be to the court of public opinion. The ILA faces an uphill battle there. Most Americans would need a dictionary to define “longshoreman,” but they understand paychecks.

Capo said ILA workers average $124,138 a year in wages and benefits, and that one-third of New York-New Jersey dockworkers top $208,000, plus annual bonuses from carriers’ tonnage-based container royalties. He said 34 port workers make more than $368,000, and that New York-New Jersey is “the most expensive port in the world.”

The ILA accused USMX of presenting an “incomplete picture” to “inflame the general public.” The union said the numbers reflect only containerized and roll-on, roll-off cargo under the coastwide master contract, and don’t include lower breakbulk wages set by local agreements.

The current deadlock, however, is primarily about New York-New Jersey, where virtually all ILA cargo is containers or ro-ro. If there’s a strike, the ILA can expect lots of attention to pay levels at the port — but not a lot of public sympathy.

Contact Joseph Bonney at Follow him on Twitter @josephbonney.

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