WASHINGTON — The U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said today it’s reaching out to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to see whether it can help in labor talks with U.S. West Coast port employers, and if so, when it could aid.
The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents employers, said on Monday night that it requested federal mediators to enter negotiations as eight months of talks with the ILWU over a labor contract has hit an impasse. The ILWU hasn’t said whether it will also ask federal mediators to help in forging a new contract after the old one expired July 1.
The PMA said ILWU slowdowns, walk-offs have hurt shippers, truckers and others, and threatened the West Coast ports’ supremacy as the major U.S. import and export gateways. The ILWU rejects that it’s engaging in such tactics.
“In accordance with its statutory responsibilities, the FMCS has been closely monitoring these negotiations for some time and has stood ready to provide mediation services at a moment’s notice,” the FMCS said in a statement. “Due to the sensitivity of the negotiations, the FMCS will have no further comment on this request and will not comment regarding the status or substance of the negotiations.”
U.S. retailers welcomed PMA’s request for outside help, which is dependent on the ILWU agreeing to bring federal mediators to the negotiating table. While noting that there have been other causes of West Coast port congestion, such as chassis dislocation and near record volume, the National Retail Federation said the lack of a longshore labor contract has contributed to lengthy shipment delays.
“The National Retail Federation has been steadfast in its calls on the White House to engage in the contract talks and we urge the administration to accept PMA’s offer to appoint a federal mediator to help resolve the current congestion crisis at the West Coast ports,” National Retail Federation Vice President of Supply Chain Jonathan Gold said in a statement.
FMCS is an independent agency that can only become involved at the request of both parties, not the president. The president, however, can urge parties to seek mediation, like Obama reportedly did behind the scenes when talks between the International Longshoremen’s Association and the United States Maritime Alliance hit in 2002.
Other than announcing in late August that they had reached an agreement on healthcare the PMA and ILWU have said nothing about the substance of their negotiations including why, as the PMA said on Monday, “we remain far apart on many issues.” Sources familiar with the negotiations said the conflict is ultimately a basic one, which is how much labor will be required to work ships in a future where terminals need to invest in automation to handle the increasingly large ships calling at West Coast ports, and the only way to do that profitably is to reduce the labor component of terminal operating costs.
Although the ability to introduce automated terminal handling technology has been addressed in earlier ILWU-PMA negotiations, one source said, terminal operators still lack the flexibility they need to manage the amount of labor they need to run highly automated operations. This fundamental sticking point, which goes back years, is the reason why many in the industry see U.S. ports as being well behind Europe and Asia in productivity.