With Los Angeles-Long Beach dockworkers back to work, the port labor spotlight returns to the International Longshoremen’s Association on the East and Gulf coasts.
Next week’s meetings between the ILA’s 200-member wage scale committee and employer representatives may determine whether cargo interests and carriers face a Maine-to-Texas dock strike at the end of this month.
Negotiations between the ILA and United States Maritime Alliance haven’t been going well, and expectations seem low for the wage scale committee meetings that open Monday in Delray Beach, Fla.
The committee’s ostensible purpose is to negotiate a coastwide master contract with employers, and to approve any deal before it’s submitted for a rank-and-file vote. Because true negotiations are impossible in front of 200 people, the nitty-gritty of bargaining takes place between smaller groups of union and management representatives. The full committee’s meetings provide a way for delegates to ask questions and learn what’s going on, and for ILA leaders to rally their troops in support of the union’s negotiating positions.
Management will have 20 or so officials on hand, and they find the meetings about as pleasurable as a root canal. They’ll periodically troop into a hotel ballroom where, surrounded and outnumbered, they’ll sit through abusive speeches and criticism of management’s proposals. Much of it is for show, but it’s part of a long-established process that eventually leads to a contract.
What should we expect next week? There are three main possibilities:
Possibility 1: The ILA and USMX plunge into serious negotiations, reach quick agreement, and return home to get on with the holidays. This, however, may require more of a Christmas miracle than anything on 34th Street. Even if the ILA and USMX strike a deal on a coastwide master contract, agreements are needed on supplemental local agreements, and time is getting short. The current contract extension expires Dec. 29.
The stickiest local issues continue to be in New York-New Jersey, where the ILA bargains with the New York Shipping Association. The situation there is complicated by the Dec. 31 expiration of the ILA’s separate contract with equipment-repair companies in the Metropolitan Marine Maintenance Contractors Association. An ILA strike against Metro would idle the East Coast’s largest port.
Possibility 2: Negotiators could agree to another contract extension. Nothing’s impossible, but this seems unlikely. There’s already been one extension beyond the contract’s original Sept. 30 expiration date. Management officials don’t seem inclined to keep extending the current agreement. Carriers are quietly preparing for a possible strike.
That brings us to Possibility 3: Negotiators fail to make headway, or worse, repeat the fiasco of last August, when three days of scheduled talks ended within minutes after ILA President Harold Daggett refused to discuss employer proposals on work rules and practices.
Presumably the federal mediator’s presence will keep the two sides talking next week. But all a mediator can do is bring the horses to water; he can’t force them to drink. If negotiations founder, Daggett may ask for a final contract offer. If USMX isn’t ready to present one because its concerns still haven’t been discussed, or if the offer isn’t to the ILA’s satisfaction, Daggett could ask delegates to authorize a strike.
We’ll know more next week.