U.S. West Coast employers on Monday blasted International Longshore and Warehouse Union negotiators, implying they are holding back rank-and-file members from even voting on what employers consider to be a generous contract over a demand that the ILWU be able to unilaterally fire waterfront arbitrators. Those very same arbitrators have proved effective in preventing union slowdowns.
Reportedly the last major obstacle to achieving a contract settlement is a union demand that waterfront arbitrators, who are chosen jointly by the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association, can be fired unilaterally without the consent of the other party. “The ILWU is essentially seeking the right to fire judges who rule against them,” said PMA spokesman Wade Gates.
The ILWU is not buying this argument. “PMA’s so-called ‘revelation’ is totally inaccurate, and it is irresponsible for them to make these kind of misleading statements," said ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees.
Under a long-established process, the ILWU and PMA agree upon the selection of four local arbitrators — one for each of the port regions on the coast. Those arbitrators are called upon frequently to handle labor-management disputes on the docks. Many of the disputes involve decisions by the union to stop working because of a health or safety concern.
It is a well-known principle in labor-management relations that some health and safety claims are valid but others are attempts by a union to reduce productivity and in the process cost employers money. PMA stated in a Monday release that during the period 2008-2014, arbitrators presided over more than 250 labor disputes involving ILWU slowdowns or work stoppages, and the union was found guilty in about 85 percent of the cases.
When the waterfront contract is in effect, the no-strike provision and grievance procedures promote quick resolution of claims -- oftentimes within hours. Negotiations for a new coastwide contract began on May 12, 2014, and the ILWU has been working without a contract since the previous one expired on July 1. With no grievance mechanism in place, the ILWU in late October orchestrated and maintained non-stop work slowdowns at West Coast ports, and these actions have contributed to port congestion. This would always be the situation if arbitrators were not free to do their job fairly and impartially, Gates said.
“The only reason those slowdowns don’t happen all the time is that arbitrators are able to order the ILWU back to work. If the ILWU has the right to continue slowdowns as a way of life without recourse, the impact on the waterfront could be catastrophic,” he said.
Arbitrators can be removed only with mutual consent of the PMA and ILWU. The ILWU is demanding that either party could remove an arbitrator at the end of any contract. “PMA strenuously objects to this attempt to damage the system that has protected the waterfront for decades,” the employers’ organization.
The PMA has offered a contract that would raise ILWU wages 14 percent over five years on top of what it says is average annual earnings for full-time longshoremen of $147,000. PMA also offered to maintain fully employer-paid health care that costs employers $35,000 per dockworker. The maximum pension would be increased to $88,800 a year. The pay guarantee plan would increase to 40 hours per week. The ILWU would also have jurisdiction over the maintenance and repair of truck chassis.
There is a feeling among employers that the leadership of the ILWU has not shared the details of the PMA’s offer with the rank and file, and if they did, the average longshoreman would care little about the demand involving arbitrators and much more about locking in the wages and fringe benefits employers are offering for the next five years.