Ninety International Longshore and Warehouse Union delegates on Monday will open meetings in San Francisco that will determine the fate of U.S. West Coast ports for the next five years.
The ILWU’s coastwide caucus could last all week. Delegates will vote whether to recommend rank-and-file approval or rejection of the five-year contract the union and the Pacific Maritime Association tentatively agreed upon Feb. 20 after nine months of negotiations.
This year’s caucus is crucial for West Coast ports and customers as well as for the ILWU and PMA. If caucus delegates recommend approval, the union leadership will hold meetings in April with each port’s membership to explain details of the tentative agreement. If caucus delegates vote against approval, the ILWU and PMA must return to the bargaining table.
Reopening negotiations would stoke new fears among cargo interests at a time when the West Coast ports is starting to recover from its worst congestion since 2002, when the ports were closed for 10 days by a lockout during contract negotiations.
West Coast ports since late 2014 have been bleeding cargo, while ports on the East and Gulf coasts and in Canada have enjoyed a bonanza of shipments rerouted to avoid unrest on the West Coast.
The current diversions continue more than a decade of lost cargo opportunities at West Coast ports. The West Coast’s market share of U.S. containerized imports last year fell to 52.3 percent from 56.8 percent in 2000, according to PIERS, a JOC.com sister company now owned by IHS.
If the caucus fails to recommend approval of the tentative contract, the resulting uncertainty will undoubtedly lead to more diversion.
The proposed contract is not revolutionary. The ILWU will get pretty much everything it demanded during the protracted negotiations -- generous wage increases; continued employer-paid medical benefits, including the Cadillac tax in the Affordable Health Care Act that will take effect in 2018, and ILWU jurisdiction over chassis inspections, maintenance and repair.
A change in the contract’s arbitration system however, could result in significant changes in how day-to-day health, safety and work-rule disputes are handled at the local ports.
Grievance procedures called for a single arbitrator in each of the four port ranges -- Seattle-Tacoma, Oregon, Northern California and Southern California. The arbitrators in the Puget Sound and Los Angeles-Long Beach are nominated by the ILWU and approved by the PMA. The arbitrators in Oregon and Northern California are nominated by the PMA and approved by the ILW
This arrangement assumed that that the ILWU-nominated arbitrators would rule in favor of the union and the PMA-nominated arbitrators would rule in favor of the employers in the day-to-day disputes, and that the issues then would be appealed to a single, neutral coast arbitrator for final resolution, if necessary.
Wags on the employer side joked that having an ILWU-nominated arbitrators would hear the disputes was tantamount to walking into divorce court where the judge is your soon-to-be ex-father-in-law. In practice, it didn’t always happen that way.
During the recent negotiations, it came to light that the ILWU in Southern California wanted longtime arbitrator David Miller, a longshoreman who comes from a lineage of dockworkers, to be fired because he sometimes ruled against the union.
The tentative contract agreement calls for disputes to be settled by a three-person local arbitration panel. One member will be nominated by the ILWU, one by the PMA and one by a neutral arbitrator. The neutral arbitrator on each local panel must be a member of either the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service or the American Arbitration Association, but cannot be a lawyer.
Some opposition has arisen to the proposed new contract. Local 10 in Oakland, one of the most militant locals on the coast, appears likely to vote against approval. Local 10 frequently votes against proposed contract. After the Feb. 20 agreement was announced, the local called work stoppages to protest negotiators’ failure to win extra staffing requirements in the new agreement.
An organization called Transport Workers Solidarity Committee will hold an informational forum on Tuesday at a church across the street from the ILWU international headquarters to discuss the tentative contract. Four of the speakers are Local 10 members or retirees.
The group has been distributing flyers entitled, “Which Way for the ILWU -- Militant Unionism or Business Unionism?” The flyer includes pictures of ILWU international President Bob McEllrath and PMA President Jim McKenna with the caption, “PMA head McKenna and ILWU Pres. McElrath both get Shippers’ Award.”
Steve Zeltzer, publicity chair for the solidarity committee, on Friday accused the ILWU leadership of refusing to provide members with contract details. He also claimed that twice in recent years, ILWU leaders had attempted to suppress free speech by union critics of proposed contracts.
“We are concerned about disruption at the meeting,” he said. “We need more discussion, not less discussion.” The ILWU international headquarters did not return a JOC.com phone call.
The militancy expressed by the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee illustrates the fine line that ILWU leaders must walk. They must negotiate a contract that does not stifle trade at West Coast ports while winning support from affiliated groups and individual members who claim ILWU leadership consistently sells out to employers.
The key to eventual approval of the contract resides in Southern California, home of the largest ILWU local on the coast. Local 13 likely can determine by itself whether the tentative agreement is ratified or sent back for renegotiation. More clarity on Local 13's leanings should develop during the caucus.