International Longshore and Warehouse Union office clerical workers in Los Angeles-Long Beach broke off contract talks and set up picket lines at four container terminals after 18 months of negotiations.
ILWU dock workers walked off of their jobs at those four terminals shortly before noon on Friday, effectively shutting those sites down through the end the day.
Jim McKenna, president of the Pacific Maritime Association, which negotiates and administers waterfront contracts with ILWU longshoremen, marine clerks and foremen (but not the OCU office workers) said he was initiating labor relations committee talks that would most likely be followed immediately on Friday by PMA calling in the local arbitrator.
PMA charges that since the OCU is affiliated with the ILWU but operates independently from the larger dock workers union, the OCU picketers are not considered to have established a legitimate picket line under the waterfront contract.
Negotiations between the Office Clerical Unit of ILWU Local 63 and 14 individual employers have been underway since April 2010. The contract expired in June 2010 and the 580-member OCU union has been working without a contract since then.
Stephen Berry, the attorney representing all of the employers, said Thursday the negotiations broke down. International ILWU President Bob McEllrath, who had been participating in the negotiations, said “we” reserve the right to exercise “economic action,” Berry said.
Although the OCU is a unit of ILWU Local 63, the marine clerks union that works at the terminals, the OCU has its own contract and its own officers who handle negotiations. McEllrath and other international officers became involved in the negotiations in the fall of 2010, Berry said.
Last year the OCU workers established picket lines at several marine terminals and dock workers refused to cross the lines. PMA at that time called in the area arbitrator. He ruled that the OCU action did not constitute a legitimate picket line under the dock workers’ contract and he ordered the longshoremen to return to their jobs. Until Friday, there had been no attempted work stoppages.
Terminal operators and shipping lines that employ OCU members are seeking cost-cutting measure they say will make them more competitive. For example, the OCU normally insists that when a job opens for even few days because of illness or vacations, that it be filled from the hiring hall. Employers want to fill vacancies “as needed,” Berry said.
Also, the OCU will not allow members who may not have enough work on a particular day to shift to positions that are short of workers.
Berry said employers thought they were going to achieve a major breakthrough this summer when they offered to merge the OCU into the larger ILWU Local 63, giving the office workers full membership in the marine clerks union for the first time. The ILWU and the PMA approved the proposal, but the OCU turned it down, Berry said.
OCU President John Fageaux did not return phone calls.
OCU workers’ average earnings approach $100,000 a year. ILWU marine clerks’ wages average more than $150,000 a year including overtime and skill differential payments. The OCU members wanted to earn wages at the marine clerks’ level, but they did not want to replace their benefits with those in the marine clerks’ contract, Berry said. For example, OCU members get 12 weeks of paid vacation a year, he said.
McKenna said the Yusen Terminal and three terminals operated by Ports America were involved in Friday’s labor action. Work was proceeding normally at the other 10 terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor, he said.