The union representing 600 office workers at shipping lines and marine terminals in Southern California surprised employers, in a pleasant sort of way, by offering in mid-April to resume negotiations for a new contract. The Office Clerical Unit of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 has been working without a contract since June 2010, and has had no direct talks with employers since December 2011, so any movement is welcome news.
OCU President John Fageaux will resume negotiations with attorney Stephen Berry, who represents employers, with added leverage. The OCU achieved a significant victory two weeks ago when the coast arbitrator who adjudicates West Coast waterfront disputes ruled that if the OCU erects picket lines at marine terminals, the dockworkers could legally honor the pickets. The OCU, which represents office workers who process shipping documents, can’t shut down the ports by itself, but the larger dockworkers union can do so by refusing to handle cargo at the terminals.
The OCU is a little-known, some say maverick, affiliate of the ILWU centered in Southern California. Office workers earn nearly $100,000 a year, with outstanding benefits and allowances for time off. Given the economic recession that devastated the ports in 2008-09, employers suggest the OCU would be wise to protect the privileged status of its members by quickly settling a contract they say guarantees existing members a comfortable job until they retire.
Fageaux sees the employers’ offer in a different light. He said the contract proposal would allow employers to use technology to outsource OCU jobs to out-of-state nonunion workers. Fageaux said the OCU made voluntary out-of-contract concessions to employers during the recession, and now the companies want to enshrine those concessions in the contract.
Berry, meanwhile, said the OCU wants to turn back the clock on technology, in effect erasing the productivity enhancements employers bought and paid for in previous contracts with generous benefits for OCU members.
Berry and Fageaux are anxious to resume negotiations. It’s essential for the nation’s largest port complex that negotiators produce a long-term agreement that guarantees stability in the OCU environment. The contentious negotiations that occur every three years damage the ports’ reputation, as well as the positive image ILWU President Bob McEllrath has established for the larger union.
The ILWU under McEllrath has a reputation of being a tough but forward-looking union that understands the crucial role labor plays in keeping West Coast ports competitive. By sending the same message to cargo interests and ocean carriers, the OCU can ensure that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach retain their dominant position among U.S. ports.