Every three years, office clerical workers in Southern California sit at the bargaining table with waterfront employers and launch what may be the West Coast’s most contentious round of contract negotiations.
The Office Clerical Unit of ILWU Local 63 is affiliated with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, but the some 580 members have their own officers and their own contract — a lucrative one at that.
“They are the highest paid clerical workers in America,” said Stephen Berry, lead negotiator for the Los Angeles-Long Beach Harbor Employers Association, which represents the shipping lines and terminal operators.
According to Berry, the current wage is $40.50 per hour for OCU workers, who process bills of lading and other shipping documents. With benefits, the annual compensation package is $165,000. When paid vacation and provisions for personal time off are considered, OCU members with seniority get as many as 12 weeks of paid time off a year.
Nevertheless, OCU negotiators bargain hard, and contract talks can last for months — or, as in the current case, years. Negotiations for the contract that expired in June 2010 began in April 2010. Almost 20 months have passed, and no deal has been reached. At this rate, the two sides may have to begin negotiations on the next contract soon after this one is wrapped up.
The OCU has called two strikes in this round of negotiations, the first in the summer of 2010 and the second this month. Each time, ILWU dockworkers refused to cross the OCU picket lines, but the area arbitrator appointed by the Pacific Maritime Association and the ILWU ordered the longshoremen back to work.
The OCU’s inability to legally shut down cargo-handling operations at the nation’s largest port complex has reduced the clerical workers’ leverage, but it hasn’t stopped the OCU from dragging out the contract talks and looking for even greater wages and benefits.
The OCU is demanding that employers collectively hire 52 more union workers, “even though there is no business need for these employees,” according to the employers’ group.
The OCU also is demanding employers call temporary workers to cover every absence, even when there is no work to be done. The OCU wants a 26 percent increase in pensions that already range up to $60,000 a year, and a 12 percent wage hike, Berry said.
Employers in the 2004 and 2007 contracts expanded their ability to implement technology, but now the OCU is demanding “unacceptable limitations on technology made available to customers and vendors,” Berry said.
OCU President John Fageaux Jr. did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Hoping to end what has become a frustrating and unnerving negotiation process every three years, the employers last summer offered the OCU a plan that could have revolutionized the office clerical scene in Southern California. The employers’ group offered to merge the OCU union into ILWU Local 63, the marine clerks union.
At the time, the presidents of the PMA and the ILWU approved the proposal, Berry said, but now the merger is apparently dead . “Contract talks that explored the possibility of a merger have proved to be unproductive, so we must return to negotiating 14 separate agreements,” ILWU International President Robert McEllrath said.
If the OCU workers would come under the marine clerks’ contract, their annual earnings would increase about $25,000. The current OCU hourly wage is actually higher than the marine clerks’ hourly wage, but ILWU marine clerks are guaranteed eight hours of straight time and two hours of overtime pay every day. The marine clerks’ contract, however, has fewer paid sick days and vacation days.
Employers say their administrative costs would decline because they would negotiate only one contract rather than 14 individual deals. Employers also would reduce their administrative costs by having only one health care program to manage.
The biggest advantage for employers is that the most disruptive union on the waterfront would cease to exist. The OCU’s maverick work stoppages and endless contract negotiations are proving increasingly toxic to the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex.
Last summer’s apparent support of the ILWU leadership for the merger proposal indicated the dockworkers are concerned about the image of the nation’s largest port complex.
The economic recession dealt a severe blow to West Coast employers and the ILWU. Leaders of both groups are telling cargo interests they are working together to make West Coast ports the preferred gateways for trade with Asia.
The OCU, however, is making that promise look hollow.