ILA Contract: Reporter's Notebook

Notes and comments after a year of covering the wild ride to an International Longshoremen’s Association contract agreement …

— Shippers can exhale. After more than a year of worrying about an East and Gulf Coast strike, they can put their contingency plans back on the shelf. The final agreement by the ILA and United States Maritime Alliance still must be ratified by the ILA rank-and-file, but all signs point to approval on April 9. ILA President Harold Daggett and other union officials are pushing hard for ratification, and no organized opposition has emerged. Some grousing is inevitable — not everyone in New York-New Jersey will like the new contract’s changes — but most ILA members I’ve spoken with are relieved to have a new contract in sight.

— The new local contract for New York-New Jersey, the focal point of the coastwide negotiations, represents a landmark. The contract between the ILA and the New York Shipping Association won’t produce overnight changes, but over the next six years it could help the port shake its reputation for high costs and low productivity. New York-New Jersey’s long-standing “continuous operation” system, which allows workers to share round-the-clock shifts and be paid for extended breaks, will be replaced in 2014 with standard shifts like those in other ports. Workers will be limited to 16 continuous hours, which should improve safety as well as productivity. The agreement lays groundwork for a phase-out of the no-show and low-show jobs that have attracted criticism. And for the first time, the new contract also sets productivity standards — 30 moves per gang per hour by Oct. 1, rising to 35 moves per hour over the next six years.

— After driving employers nuts for more than a year, ILA President Harold Daggett did what he had to do. With a fair measure of roaring and snorting, he agreed to a deal that got plenty for his members, gave employers something in return, and avoided a strike. With his outsized personality and penchant for theatrics, Daggett set the tone for a year of up-and-down, on-and-off negotiations punctuated by threatened strikes. After more than 25 years of gentlemanly bargaining with previous ILA presidents John Bowers and Richard Hughes, employers had a hard time adjusting to Daggett’s elbows-out negotiating style. (And a note on Hughes: His 2009 contract extension deal, criticized at the time by ILA firebrands, now appears to be one of the most favorable deals the union ever negotiated.)

— On the management side, these negotiations were remarkable for the close involvement by container ship lines. Carriers took an unusually firm stand this year in support of lower costs and improved productivity. They continued that push until the very end of negotiations, reportedly seeking last-minute tweaks. (When ILA officials were waiting Wednesday morning to see if USMX accepted the final deal, the union sent out a Twitter message declaring that the ILA “will not allow foreign companies (to) destroy American jobs and economy. ILA Means I Love America.”) The carriers didn’t get everything they wanted — they won major changes in New York-New Jersey but failed to reduce sizes of lashing gangs in South Atlantic ports — but they made their presence felt. Another new dynamic in this round of negotiations was the shift in ownership of major New York-New Jersey terminals to investment groups with whom the ILA hadn’t previously dealt.

— The Most Valuable Player in the ILA-USMX bargaining was not a player but a neutral party, George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Cohen and his FMCS colleagues were credited by union and management officials alike with getting negotiations back on track, dealing with the personalities at the table, and keeping them moving toward an agreement. In separate conversations this week, three high-ranking ILA officials remarked that if the FMCS hadn’t been invited into the negotiations last September, the union would be on strike. Whatever the FMCS line item is in the federal budget, the shipping industry should view it as tax money well spent.

Contact Joseph Bonney at jbonney@joc.com and follow him at twitter.com/JosephBonney.

Complete coverage of ILA-USMX negotiations

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