ILA negotiations get under way

ILA negotiations get under way

It takes a big room to hold the wage-scale delegates of the International Longshoremen's Association, and more than 300 of them were at a Miami Beach hotel for this month's kickoff negotiating session with waterfront management in Atlantic and Gulf ports.

They heard an initial contract offer from the United States Maritime Alliance, the umbrella group for port and regional management associations and employers. Among other things, the USMX offered annual wage increases of 50 cents an hour in each of the next three years. The ILA's basic wage for container and roll-on, roll-off cargo now is $27 an hour.

ILA President John Bowers said he "was not disappointed" with the results of the two-day meeting. "This was the first time we really sat down," he said. "The fact that they came up with an offer, although it wasn't that great, was positive. That's a start."

The ILA's current contract doesn't expire until Sept. 30, 2004, but the union and management started negotiations early. That's partly to reassure shippers who might be nervous about a port shutdown like last year's 10-day lockout of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in West Coast ports.

The ILA's last major contract-related work stoppage was a three-day strike at North Atlantic ports in 1986. The union's last coastwide strike was a 1977 walkout that targeted container, ro-ro and barge-carrying ships. Union and management officials have emphasized their desire for an early, peaceful settlement next year. "I want to assure everybody that we're not looking for a strike," Bowers said.

This month's initial bargaining session meeting followed the ILA's presentation last spring of a "wish list" of master-contract provisions.

Management responded after crunching numbers on projected costs of medical insurance, wages, pensions and other contract issues.

One issue that arose in Miami Beach was the structure of future bargaining sessions. Management officials said it's difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate a contract before a crowd of more than 300 union delegates and management officials. USMX officials suggested that ILA representatives break into smaller committees representing different crafts - clerks, maintenance and repair, and deep-sea longshoremen - to work out details of contract proposals.

Bowers continues to insist on allowing all wage-scale delegates to be directly involved, at least for now, so that they can hear the management proposals and statistics and understand the complexities of the issues.

The current negotiations are the union's first full-blown round of bargaining since 1996, when the union and management negotiated a five-year agreement that in 2000 was extended through next September.

The ILA plans for its full wage-scale delegation to be on hand next January when negotiations resume with USMX officials, led by James Capo, the management organization's chairman and chief executive.

In the meantime, Bowers has instructed ILA local officials to begin negotiations with their management counterparts on local contracts, which cover port-specific work rules, pensions and other locally administered benefits, as well as pay for handling bulk and breakbulk cargo.

While local talks get under way, a permanent committee of top union and management officials, created in the 1990s to discuss issues between formal negotiations, will continue to meet. The committee's next meeting is scheduled for later this month.

The buildup to this year's ILA contract negotiations has lacked the saber-rattling that preceded last year's contract talks between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association on the West Coast. Although Bowers has said he hopes to use the ILWU contract as a starting point for his union's master-contract talks, there are sharp differences between longshore labor relations on the two coasts.

Unlike the ILWU, which deals with a single coastwide organization, the ILA negotiates local contracts with multiple employer associations at nearly three dozen Atlantic and Gulf ports. The situation is complicated further by the presence of non-ILA competition for bulk and breakbulk cargo and by competition between ports and among stevedores and terminal operators that employ ILA labor.

In past ILA negotiations, bargaining for local contracts generally has followed settlement of the coastwide master contract. Bowers said, however, that the union wants to move the process along while waiting for master-contract negotiations to resume. "We don't have a lot of time," he said, "so we don't want to waste any."