Since bargaining kicked off nearly a year ago, it’s been clear that the road to a new International Longshoremen's Association contract would run through New York-New Jersey.
That road has been rocky, as we saw Wednesday when ILA President Harold Daggett and other union officials walked out soon after the start of a scheduled two-day bargaining session with the New York Shipping Association on local work rules and staffing levels.
If Daggett’s blowup was partly theatrics, it wouldn’t be the first time. But coming just four weeks before the Feb. 6 expiration of the latest contract extension, the walkout heightened questions about the outlook for a new agreement.
Many observers assumed that after the ILA and United States Maritime Alliance agreed on container royalties and announced a contract extension that averted a Dec. 30 strike, details on a final contract would be smoothed out quickly. It’s not that simple.
ILA negotiations are conducted at two levels. The coastwide master contract covers wages, jurisdiction, technology, container royalties and medical benefits, and defines the basic workday. Supplementary local contracts cover work rules and other port-specific issues, including breakbulk wages.
The master contract is negotiated by USMX, the umbrella group for employers in East and Gulf Coast ports. Local contracts are negotiated by groups such as the NYSA, which also are members of USMX.
Because pay is in the master contract and work rules are in the local agreements, each affects the other. Employers are unwilling to sign off on a coastwide deal until all local contracts are settled. The ILA is taking a similar position on New York-New Jersey, which by far is the stickiest of the local agreements.
Employers have said for at least two years that they wanted to negotiate changes to New York-New Jersey’s work rules and practices, which now require high levels of staffing, allow workers to be paid when they’re not working, and provide round-the-clock pay for a handful of ILA workers.
In late 2010, the Waterfront Commission of New York Harbor had a grand time with a series of hearings featuring testimony about ILA timekeepers on the clock for as much as 27 hours a day, shop stewards paid more than $450,000 a year, and contract provisions requiring work gangs of 15 or 16 when only nine or 10 are on the job at a time.
Those practices didn’t develop overnight, and employers share responsibility. For years, they’ve been reluctant to challenge entrenched work rules and practices, many of which predate containerization. Even before the Waterfront Commission hearings, employers had said they were determined to push for changes in the current negotiations. Management officials say they’re unwilling to sign a six-year contract that doesn’t address costs and productivity in the port.
Carriers want to control costs and improve productivity so that their big, new ships can be turned around quickly. Terminals also want changes. Since the last contract was negotiated in 2004, most New York-New Jersey container terminals have been sold to financial institutions or pension funds. They’re anxious to boost returns on investment by making the port more competitive for Midwest cargo.
The ILA is resisting the proposed changes. New York-New Jersey is the union’s headquarters and longtime power base. Daggett is the third generation of his family to work in the port. For years he was president of the big maintenance-repair local that his son Dennis now heads. The ILA workers with those big pay packages are his longtime friends and colleagues.
Although local issues in other ports are more tractable, there’s no evidence of a regional split in the ILA. Local officials in other ports say they’re committed to solidarity and aren’t willing to buck the union’s top leaders, even if they privately regard some of the New York-New Jersey work rules as preposterous.
Caught between the hammer and the anvil are cargo interests. For the last six months, they’ve had to divert cargo, pad inventories, and adjust supply chains to hedge against an ILA strike, and then do it again and again. First there was the contract’s original Sept. 30 expiration, then an extension to Dec. 29, and now a shorter one through Feb. 6.
Shippers are growing tired of the routine, but there’s not much they can do except deal with their own supply chains and continue to sign letters urging negotiators to keep bargaining with the federal mediator until they reach a deal.
At some point, a deal will be reached. Rhetoric notwithstanding, the employers aren’t trying to break the union. Eventually, they and the ILA will sit down and negotiate a contract. Shippers can only hope it happens sooner rather than later, and without a strike.