Brinkmanship in Delray Beach

International Longshoremen’s Association President Harold Daggett got everyone’s attention — doesn’t he always? — by winning ILA delegates’ authorization to call a Maine-to-Texas strike at year-end.

So what should we make of the latest episode in the negotiations between the ILA and United States Maritime Alliance?

First, the vote wasn’t unexpected. Most people figured that at some point in this week’s meetings of the ILA’s 200-member wage scale committee, Daggett would seek a strike authorization. He did so first thing Monday, and the roll call vote was unanimous. Even delegates who privately oppose a strike voted yes rather than be seen as undermining their chief negotiator.

Second, although the vote underscores the genuine threat of a strike, it’s still possible one could be averted. After the strike vote, USMX presented its proposals. The reception from some delegates was antagonistic (again, no surprise). The two sides will meet again Tuesday. If there’s movement in the positions, the two sides could continue their federally mediated talks past Dec. 29.

That’s the optimistic view. A more pessimistic, and possibly realistic, appraisal is that Monday’s events mean East and Gulf Coast ports are likely headed for a shutdown. Many ILA and management officials have conceded they think a strike is all but inevitable.

No question, the ILA and employers are far apart in their proposals. The differences tend to be exaggerated at large meetings that encourage theatrics. However, even reports from smaller union-employer sessions where the real negotiating is done suggest limited progress toward a contract settlement.

Daggett’s speech to ILA delegates before Monday’s strike authorization emphasized USMX’s proposal to cap annual payouts to workers from carriers’ per-ton container royalties.

He listed additional demands: No changes in the formula for funding the coastwide medical plan, tighter guarantees over ILA jurisdiction on information processing and other work, weighing all import containers at the dock, and bringing state-owned South Atlantic ports’ non-union state employees into the ILA.

But it’s clear that Daggett’s primary demands involve container royalties and preserving work rules in supplementary local contracts that add to staffing costs, especially in the Port of New York and New Jersey.

That puts him at odds with USMX. Unlike in previous years, container ship lines that dominate the management group seem determined this year to tackle costly provisions they say are unsustainable.

Complete Coverage of ILA-USMX Negotiations

USMX is proposing to continue paying overtime for work outside 8 to 5, Monday-Friday, but wants to curb the practice of paying workers for time not worked, particularly in New York-New Jersey. USMX’s proposed six-year deal would provide two $1-an-hour wage increases in straight-time pay.

On container royalties, USMX proposes to freeze them at current levels, which averaged $15,500 per eligible worker last year, and use the excess for other ILA benefits. USMX also proposes to eliminate royalty payouts for future hires. Employers note that new hires are unlikely to have been alive when container royalties were introduced in the 1960s to cushion ILA workers from job losses to containerization.

Daggett frames the royalty issue in a different way. He sees the annual payouts to workers as a permanent part of his members’ wages, and says employers have no right to the money, which totaled $211 million last year. “If the carriers don’t want to pay container royalty, then bring back all the warehouses, and start stuffing and stripping again,” he said.

Bridging the ILA-USMX differences will be a herculean task, but it’s not impossible. Meanwhile, the latest events did little to reassure shippers hanging on every development in this drama. Even though the strike authorization contained an element of posturing, it may be a prelude to the real thing.

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

 

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