The last piece of a complex labor puzzle has clicked into place at the Port of New York and New Jersey. Now things really will get interesting.
Wednesday’s contract agreement between the International Longshoremen’s Association and the Metropolitan Marine Maintenance Contractors Association followed ratification of a coastwide master contract and a supplementary local pact between the ILA and the New York Shipping Association.
The Metro contract, negotiated separately from the master and NYSA local agreements, ends more than a year of bargaining and uncertainty.
“To paraphrase the late Dr. Martin Luther King, ‘Peace at last, peace at last, thank the Almighty Lord, peace at last,’ ” NYSA President Joseph Curto said. “We can look forward to labor peace in the Port of New York and New Jersey as we now have a trifecta of labor agreements.”
Trifectas often provide lucrative returns at the racetrack, but any horseplayer will tell you that the highest-paying bet usually is the Pick 6.
The same goes for the new ILA contracts: Labor peace up front is important, but the potentially huge payouts will develop over the new contracts’ six-year terms.
That’s why New York-New Jersey was at the center of the protracted longshore contract negotiations, and will remain so through 2018.
Employers won hard-fought changes allowing them to improve productivity and lower costs at the high-cost port. Now that the negotiations are over, the focus turns to implementing the new provisions.
As Curto noted, the NYSA-ILA contract provides the tools and means to “maximize the efficiency, cost competitiveness, safety and quality of marine cargo operations” in the port.
Those tools will be applied in phases, starting with a two-month window for older workers to decide whether to accept early-retirement incentives.
The NYSA plans to seek the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor’s permission to hire and train new workers to fill existing needs and to replace early retirees. Curto said there’s no firm estimate yet, but that 400 to 500 new workers may be needed.
Other phased-in changes will include work shifts resembling those at other ports, reductions in gang sizes, random drug and alcohol testing, and an end to low-show jobs. Dockworkers will receive pay differentials to help offset the new shift system’s impact on wages.
The new contract commits the union and NYSA to productivity standards of 30 moves per hour per gang, beginning in October. That standard will rise by one container per gang-hour each year until it reaches 35 by the end of the contract. A joint ILA-NYSA productivity committee will be formed to achieve those goals.
Of all the provisions in the NYSA-ILA contract, the productivity standards seem to have attracted the keenest interest from port customers — and for good reason. Portwide production now averages about 27 moves per gang-hour, well below levels at other East Coast ports, Curto said.
There are many explanations for the below-par production, but almost everyone agrees that New York-New Jersey can do better. ILA President Harold Daggett has pledged that the union will work to achieve the new goals and attract more cargo to the port, and will work with management on the agreement’s administration.
Even in the flush of success at the bargaining table, no one has illusions that implementation of the contract will be easy. Change is difficult, and many rank-and-filers remain skeptical. But NYSA and ILA officials appear optimistic about the next six years.
“We have the tools,” Curto said. “Now it’s time to go to work.”