Representatives of the International Longshoremen’s Association and United States Maritime Alliance have accepted a federal mediator’s invitation to meet this week in a last-ditch effort to head off an ILA strike at East and Gulf Coast ports.
George Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, said the ILA and USMX had agreed to meet with him before a 90-day extension of their coastwide master contract expires at midnight Saturday. He would not comment further.
The ILA has threatened to strike if a bargaining standoff isn’t ended, and ILA President Harold Daggett has said a strike appears likely. Negotiations between the union and USMX broke down last Tuesday after the two sides failed to agree on a second extension.
Employers have been discussing options that include countering the union’s threatened strike against containerized cargoes with a lockout of all ILA workers, including those handling noncontainerized cargoes.
The ILA has said any strike would be restricted to containerized cargo covered by its coastwide master contract with USMX. The union plans to continue handle breakbulk, automobiles, nonfrozen perishables, military shipments and passenger ships under supplementary local contracts.
Many of the ILA’s local contracts are with terminal operators or local employer associations that also are USMX members. A lockout would close East and Gulf Coast ports and affect breakbulk operators that employ union labor even though they aren’t signatories to the master contract signed by container lines.
Such a move would increase pressure on the ILA, and bolster the case for President Obama to use the Taft-Hartley Act to head off an ILA strike. Business organizations already are urging Obama to invoke Taft-Hartley, which allows the president to seek an injunction requiring an 80-day cooling-off period for labor disputes that affect a large part of an industry and threaten national health or safety.
The Taft-Hartley Act’s back-to-work provision was last used to halt a work stoppage in 2002, when then-President Bush employed it to halt a 10-day lockout of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union at West Coast ports.
The ILA and USMX have engaged in off-and-on negotiations since March. Last week’s effort to extend the contract a second time collapsed when the union said it would not accept changes to carrier-paid container royalties, most of which are earmarked for annual payments to ILA members.
Container royalties have been part of ILA contracts since the 1960s, when they were created to cushion workers from job losses to containerization. USMX wants to cap payouts to workers at current levels, which averaged $15,500 last year, and use the excess to fund ILA benefits and begin a long-term phaseout of the program.
Besides royalties, the ILA and USMX are at odds over employer efforts to provide more flexibility to negotiate changes in work rules and pay practices in local contracts, primarily in the high-cost Port of New York and New Jersey.
As the weekend contract expiration draws near, ports along the East and Gulf coasts have been accelerating movement of containers from terminals and advising customers that if the ILA strikes, container terminals will be closed until the work stoppage ends. Many port terminals plan to keep gates open longer than usual this week.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection also is preparing for disruptions to cargo flow. In a memorandum, the agency issued guidance on procedures to follow in case of a work stoppage.