While the International Longshoremen’s Association and United States Maritime Alliance churn the wake on the East and Gulf coasts, all should be calm on the West Coast. The current contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and West Coast waterfront, after all, doesn’t expire until July 2014.
But it’s been anything but quiet on the western front.
The past year has seen three heated disputes in the Pacific Northwest in which the ILWU is fighting to preserve what the union believes is its jurisdiction.
In Southern California, the Office Clerical Unit of ILWU Local 63, an unpredictable affiliate of the ILWU, has been working without a contract for two years and could shut down the nation’s largest port complex if negotiations get out of hand.
The ILWU this past year proved it would go to almost any length to protect its jurisdiction. EGT, an international joint venture led by Bunge North America, last year attempted to open a new grain export terminal in Longview, Wash., with workers who are members of another union.
If EGT had succeeded, it would have been the first non-ILWU grain terminal in the Pacific Northwest. The ILWU in 2011 launched a series of protests at the EGT terminal. Dozens of union members and their spouses were arrested. ILWU President Bob McEllrath earlier this year was tried for attempting to block a train from entering the terminal, but the jury failed to reach a verdict.
EGT in January agreed to hire ILWU workers, and the first export grain shipment from the EGT terminal occurred the following month.
Another battle is under way at the Port of Portland. The ILWU in June began engaging in what employers charged were work slowdowns at Terminal 6 to protest the use of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers members to handle refrigerated containers.
Five vessels were diverted from Portland’s only container terminal because the shipping lines said productivity at Terminal 6 had dropped to an unacceptable level. Litigation in the case involves a complex web of charges and countercharges involving the ILWU, the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents West Coast employers, ICTSI, the terminal operator, and the National Labor Relations Board.
Productivity levels have returned to normal and vessel calls have resumed in Portland, but litigation involving the jurisdictional issue is expected to go on for months. The equivalent of two jobs are at stake. The IBEW has worked those jobs since the early 1970s, but the ILWU says its jurisdiction includes the plugging, unplugging and monitoring of reefer containers.
Jurisdiction is important to the ILWU at all types of facilities. The union in mid-July picketed a renovated barge terminal in Coos Bay to protest the intent of the operator to handle lumber with nonunion labor. ILWU officers said they tried to negotiate a contract with Southport Lumber, but charged the company wanted to reduce the number of jobs and cut wages.
The outcome of OCU negotiations in Southern California has been hanging over the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex since the previous contract expired in June 2010. The issue heated up considerably in April, when the coast arbitrator who handles waterfront disputes ruled ILWU dockworkers could honor OCU pickets without violating their contract.
The OCU represents about 600 office workers at shipping lines and terminal operators, primarily in Southern California. The OCU contract is separate from the coastwide ILWU contract for dockworkers. As a union, the OCU’s main leverage is to establish pickets at marine terminals and rely on the dockworkers to refuse to cross the lines.
On two previous occasions, dockworkers honored the pickets but were immediately ordered back to cargo-handling operations by the local arbitrator. In April, however, the coast arbitrator overruled the area arbitrator. Negotiations between the OCU and waterfront employers are scheduled to resume on July 30, and the industry is concerned a work stoppage could occur if negotiations reach an impasse.
Employers consider the OCU to be a difficult union to deal with, considering the hourly wage of $40.50 makes its office workers among the highest paid in the nation. The contract also includes generous pension, medical and time-off benefits. The OCU is concerned employers will attempt to use technology provisions in the contract to outsource their work to other states or foreign countries.