Matson Navigation's top unionized ship officers could strike tomorrow if they do not reach agreement during scheduled talks with the shipping company today.
The Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P), the American Radio Association (ARA) and the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA) said they have not been able to reach agreement on a four-year contract with Matson since formal negotiations began around May.
Union officials said the contract dispute is not about pay, but about parity. The union wants to end a two-tier system in place now that was designed to help Matson finance four new ships.
"Matson promised as soon as things got better economically that they would eliminate the two-tier system," said Charles Khim, a Honolulu labor attorney for MM&P, whose members held a picket meeting followed by a press conference Wednesday. "They have made profit every single year, even last year with the crash of the credit market. They have not kept their word about parity and unfortunately it has come to this."
Members of the unions range from ship's captains to other marine engine and deck officers. Their current contract was set to expire June 15, but a 10-day extension was reached, with talks set to resume at 10 a.m. today in Los Angeles.
If a new contract or significant progress is not made by midnight, when the extension expires, some 1,000 to 1,500 officers who are eligible to work for Matson sailing out of Hawaii and the West Coast could strike, disrupting Matson's shipping in Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle and Honolulu.
In addition, while the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 142, which represents the dockworkers who drive the trucks and load the ships inside the terminal, is not involved in this battle, they could choose to avoid crossing the picket lines, said Sark Wetzel, who sails as a second mate for Matson.
"In the past, we have had solidarity with the ILWU," Wetzel said.
The ILWU has declined to comment until Matson and its unionized officers have left the bargaining table.
Jeff Hull, a spokesman for Matson, declined to disclose specifics of the negotiations, but said that there is still time to reach an agreement.
"We will continue to negotiate in good faith," he told the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.
"Without Matson ships running, Hawaii would be virtually cut off from the food and other necessities of life -- everything but oil, and you can't eat oil," said Khim.
Matson is the state's largest shipping company, carrying about two-thirds of the containerized freight shipped to Hawaii. About 80 percent of all goods sold in Hawaii come via ship
Union members are willing to strike to preserve safety, maintain jobs and attain wage parity, Khim said. Ship and environmental safety are at stake if Matson eliminates the highly technical master radio electronics officers’ billet, he said.
Such a move would cut about 25 officer jobs, said Carl Young, ARA national secretary/treasurer.
"Matson would try to reassign the duties, but so many are so high-tech and specialized that no one on the ship can do them," Young said.
The unions also want Matson to agree not to outsource union jobs and to eliminate the two-tier wage system, said Don Marcus, MM&P's West Coast vice president. Unionized officers crewing Matson's older ships make as much as 30 percent more than their counterparts on the company's newer ships, Marcus said.