UPDATED 4:15 EDT, JAN. 9
NEWARK, N.J. — The International Longshoremen’s Association broke off talks on a local contract covering work rules and staffing at the Port of New York and New Jersey, clouding prospects for a deal before the ILA’s Feb. 6 contract expiration.
The breakdown in talks between the ILA and the New York Shipping Association came less than two weeks after a contract extension that averted a coastwide dockworkers’ strike on the weekend before New Year’s Day.
Last month’s extension of the union’s coastwide master contract with United States Maritime Alliance cleared the way for parallel negotiation of supplementary local contracts, led by the one covering New York-New Jersey.
ILA President Harold Daggett and other ILA leaders walked out of the New York-New Jersey negotiations after the NYSA proposed “revolutionary changes” in work practices at the port, ILA spokesman James McNamara said.
NYSA President Joseph Curto confirmed the abrupt halt of the talks but added, “We’re hopeful we can still get together before the end of the extension to talk about things important to the Port of New York and New Jersey, namely archaic work practices and overstaffing.”
It was unclear how the breakoff of the New York-New Jersey talks would affect federally mediated negotiations set for next week between the ILA and USMX, the umbrella group representing employers in East and Gulf Coast ports.
The ILA and USMX agreed last month on container royalties, the per-ton payments that carriers have made on containerized cargo since the 1960s to support annual cash payouts to longshoremen.
The union and employers, however, remain far apart on what appears to be a stickier issue, the work rules and staffing levels in the ILA’s supplementary local contract covering New York-New Jersey.
NYSA officials have said for more than two years that they planned to use the current negotiations to seek changes in the port’s work rules and practices, some of which predate containerization.
Unlike other ports that hire dockworkers in shifts, New York-New Jersey has a “continuous operation” system in which work gangs stay with a ship until its work is completed. The system requires extensive relief staffing, including the hiring of gangs with 15 or 16 members when only nine or 10 are working at a time.
“There’s a theme I’ve talked about since I’ve been with NYSA. That theme is that if you have work practices that you can no longer explain or rationalize or justify, change it,” said Curto, who joined the NYSA in 2009 after 37 years at Maher Terminals. “If they want to call these changes revolutionary, fine. But they are things that make sense.”
Curto said employers aren’t seeking a complete overhaul of rules and practices that have existed for decades, but that they want to address practices that hurt the port’s competitiveness. “We want to negotiate. We want to bargain,” he said. “I told them we’re not looking to hit a grand slam, but we want to start the process. I told the union that there were a number of things we wanted to talk about. Apparently there was a reluctance on the part of some to talk about these things.”
ILA officials walked out shortly after the start of a scheduled two-day bargaining session. “Management came to this meeting ready to bargain,” Curto said. “We were – and are – prepared to discuss ideas suggested by the ILA. But by walking out of today’s session, the ILA leadership demonstrated its unwillingness to engage in a serious discussion about the changes necessary to ensure the viability of the Port of New York and New Jersey.”
Wednesday's abrupt halt to the New York-New Jersey talks is raising concerns among cargo interests, which are watching the negotiations closely and may have considered the negotiations substantially settled after last month’s master-contract extension.
Many shippers diverted cargo or adjusted booking schedules to avoid threatened shutdowns before the contract’s original Sept. 30 expiration, and again last month. With Feb. 6 just four weeks away, they now face the prospect of having to implement contingency plans for a third time.