Three and Out

If the International Longshoremen's Association contract negotiations were a football game, it would be early in the first quarter, no score.

The ILA and United States Maritime Alliance met for three days this month in Orlando to exchange initial proposals. The proposals were far apart, and the two sides adjourned until a date to be determined.

Though this "three-and-out" session produced nothing conclusive, it would be a mistake to read too much into it. The Orlando meeting was like an initial exchange of possessions in football. Each team got a peek at the other's formations and game plan. Now theyåll return to the sidelines and make adjustments.

The ILA asked for pay increases, an end to tiered wages, abolition of caps on container-royalty bonuses, improved medical benefits and tougher contract language on safety and work jurisdiction. The union proposed a new contract taking effect immediately upon ratification and continuing into 2013.

Management rejected the union proposals as too costly, especially in this economy. USMX proposed a three-year contract extension to 2013 that would freeze wages at current levels and omit a scheduled increase this fall. USMX also proposed a freeze on container royalty payments and elimination of overtime pay after eight hours on nights and weekends.

The two sides did agree on one thing: the creation of six labor-management subcommittees to discuss specific issues dealing with longshoremen, clerks and checkers, maintenance workers, safety, work jurisdiction and medical benefits. In a joint statement, ILA President Richard Hughes and USMX Chairman James Capo said they were "encouraged that the work of the subcommittees over the next several weeks will bring us closer to an agreement."

When that agreement might be reached is still up in the air. The ILA and USMX started negotiations early in hope of reaching a settlement long before the current contract expires on Sept. 30, 2010. Hughes has said that he doesn't want to give cargo interests a reason to seek alternatives to Atlantic and Gulf ports.

An early contract may happen, and it may not. At the Orlando meetings, there was considerable sentiment among ILA delegates to move cautiously. The Longshore Workers Coalition, an intraunion reform group that nearly succeeded in derailing ratification of the last contract, has urged negotiators to delay bargaining rather than consider concessions. That view is shared by some delegates who are not affiliated with the LWC.

If you depend on Atlantic or Gulf ports, what should you do? At this point, the best advice is to wait and watch. The current ILA-USMX contract doesnåt expire for another 19 months, so there's ample time to work out a new agreement.

It's still early in the game.

Joseph Bonney is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at 973-848-7139, or at jbonney@joc.com.

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