The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were open for business Friday despite the rejection of a tentative contract agreement by office clerical workers.
However, what the next step will be involving the Office Clerical Unit of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 and waterfront employers is uncertain at this time.
Cargo interests are concerned that a prolonged impasse could lead to a repeat of contract negotiations last fall that resulted in an eight-day strike at 10 of the 14 container terminals in the port complex. ILWU dockworkers honored the OCU picket lines, effectively shutting down 70 percent of the cargo-handling capacity at the nation’s largest port complex.
The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents employers in contract negotiations with ILWU dockworkers but is not involved in the OCU negotiations, said employers have received no indication that a resumption of picketing is imminent.
However, PMA President Jim McKenna said it is important that the OCU contract impasse be resolved relatively soon.
Port executives are concerned about how the labor uncertainty is affecting cargo routing in the trans-Pacific. Year-end numbers published on the Pacific Maritime Association
Web site show that container volume in Los Angeles-Long Beach in 2012 increased only 1 percent, while container volume in Seattle and Tacoma rose 4 percent.
Possibly more disconcerting to the ports as well as the ILWU is that Los Angeles-Long Beach and the entire West Coast underperformed last year compared to all U.S. ports. Total loaded containers moving through the West Coast increased 2 percent last year.
However, the February Global Port Tracker released Friday by the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates showed total U.S. containerized imports in 2012 increased 2.9 percent.
East and Gulf Coast ports performed better than West Coast ports despite almost yearlong uncertainty over the direction of International Longshoremen’s Association contract negotiations and innuendos about ILA strikes at those ports. West Coast ports had anticipated there would be cargo diversions to the West Coast, but it appears now that cargo interests simply shipped early to the East Coast with the Sept. 30 ILA contract expiration looming.
Global Port Tracker projects that in the first six months of 2013 U.S. imports will increase 5.3 percent compared to the first half of 2012. If West Coast ports continue to lose market share, this will represent lost revenue for the ports and lost work opportunities for the ILWU.
However, the OCU on its own can have only a limited impact on cargo handling. The office workers can only shut down the ports if the ILWU dockworkers choose to honor their picket lines.
There are 16 distinct bargaining units in the OCU, with each unit representing office workers at an individual shipping line or terminal operator. Initial reports this week indicated that only three of the units rejected the proposed contract that was negotiated on Dec. 4.
However, the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Association announced late Thursday after the OCU shared the results of Wednesday’s vote that all 16 OCU bargaining units rejected the contract.
Neither side returned phone calls so it could not be determined what the sticking point is. According to employers, the average salary plus benefits of office workers would increase to $190,000 a year by the end of the six-year contract.