Why So Difficult?

As we wait to see whether the new International Longshoremen’s Association contract wins rank-and-file ratification, this is a good time to ask: Why were these negotiations so darn difficult?

Conflict was inevitable. The ILA had a new president in Harold Daggett, a volatile force of nature with a give-no-quarter bargaining style. Employers were emboldened by container lines that took an unusually tough stand in favor of lower costs and higher productivity.

Their stylistic and substantive differences contrasted with the low-key, we’re-in-this-together bargaining that had prevailed in recent years. And unlike past negotiations, these were hashed out in the glare of the public spotlight.

James Capo, chairman and CEO of United States Maritime Alliance, recalls that in previous years, the ILA and employers issued two press releases — “one saying we were starting negotiations, and one saying we had finished.”

That was before the Internet gave everyone and his brother a forum to share opinion and information, some of it accurate. Throughout these negotiations, the ILA and its members made heavy use of Facebook and Twitter. USMX created a Web site, usmxlaborupdates.com, for news and background. Bloggers of all stripes weighed in. Trade associations issued a stream of updates on e-mail and Twitter.

There was plenty to tweet about. The negotiations were remarkable for their complex tradeoffs between the Maine-to-Texas master contract and its supplemental local agreements that cover work rules and other port-specific issues.

Most monetary issues are in the master contract, which sets wages, per-ton container royalties and contributions to local pensions and benefits. Employers sought to leverage the coastwide contract to win local concessions, principally in the high-cost Port of New York and New Jersey.

Complete coverage of ILA-USMX negotiations

Large carriers said privately they were willing to take a strike if necessary to trim New York-New Jersey’s staffing requirements, halt pay for hours-long rest breaks, curtail no-show/low-show jobs, and improve productivity.

Addressing those issues required line-by-line review of the port’s 104-page local contract, and renegotiation of clauses that hadn’t been touched in decades. It also meant a clash with Daggett, who fiercely resisted changes at the ILA’s headquarters port.

The standoff over New York-New Jersey was the main cause of repeated breakdowns in the coastwide bargaining. Neither side was willing to sign off on the master contract without a local agreement for the East Coast’s busiest port.

The final deal appears headed for coastwide ratification by ILA members but not everyone’s on board in New York-New Jersey. Some rank-and-filers say they surrendered too much, while some carrier officials are muttering that they didn’t win enough local concessions to offset their master contract costs.

So neither side is completely happy with the agreement — which usually means it’s a good contract.

No one said this would be easy.  

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





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