Oakland work stoppage foreshadows more ILWU contract uncertainties

Oakland work stoppage foreshadows more ILWU contract uncertainties

Cargo interests are hoping that maverick work stoppages at the Port of Oakland, such as the one that shut the port down on the Sunday night shift, will cease now that the new five-year International Longshore and Warehouse Union contract is in effect.

But uncertainties over implementation of the contract are bound to occur in the weeks ahead at all West Coast ports until the ILWU and Pacific Maritime Association provide clarity on important provisions in the contract covering work rules and related issues such as mandatory dockworker inspections of chassis at marine terminals.

The ILWU and PMA reached tentative agreement on Feb. 20 on the new contract after nine months of sometimes contentious negotiations and four months of work slowdowns at West Coast ports. The ILWU membership officially ratified the new contract on May 22.

As normally happens after a contract is ratified, implementation of new contract provisions is accompanied by uncertainties as employers and ILWU locals take actions each believes are appropriate in the new environment. Disagreements sometimes occur, and area arbitrators are called in to adjudicate the specific issues. That is what happened Sunday night in Oakland.

Sunday’s incident centered upon a disagreement between terminal operators and ILWU Local 34 over a new provision covering the dispatch of marine clerks for the night shift on Sundays. In the past, terminal operators had to inform ILWU Local 34 by Saturday morning as to its need for marine clerks for the Sunday night shift. Employers said they often had difficulty ascertaining their needs until the day of the dispatch, so the new contract stipulates that the terminals must file their dispatch needs on Sunday mornings for the Sunday night shifts.

The PMA, in a release, said ILWU Local 34 on Sunday “failed to adhere to the new dispatch procedures.” The PMA submitted the matter to the area arbitrator who ruled that the ILWU took unilateral action in violation of the contract and that the union refused to work with employers to resolve the dispute peacefully.

ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees gave a different account of what happened. Local 34 officials charged that the PMA itself did not follow all of the provisions in the new contract concerning the dispatching of marine clerks, but rather “cherry picked” the provisions it wanted to enforce. Nevertheless, the ILWU worked with the PMA to ensure that dispatching for Monday’s day shift worked smoothly, Merrilees said. The port reported that cargo handling returned to normal on Monday morning.

Although Sunday’s disagreement was a one-and-done incident, the PMA said this was the third work stoppage in Oakland in recent weeks. The ILWU locals in Northern California have a reputation for militancy. “By sanctioning illegal work stoppages, the local ILWU leaders are not just violating the new contract, but are disrespecting the truckers, local residents and small businesses whose livelihoods depend on the efficient and reliable movement of cargo through the port,” the PMA stated.  

Cargo interests and truckers are also concerned about issues and disagreements that could cause problems at all ports up and down the coast. For example, another provision in the new contract requires inspection by ILWU mechanics of chassis before they are pulled from the marine terminals. Trucker-owned chassis are exempt.

Problems occurred last week in Northern and Southern California when ILWU locals began to implement the inspection requirement by pulling over certain truckers and requesting proof of ownership of the equipment. Truckers charged that the ILWU demands are illegal because their employers, the shipping lines and terminal operators, no longer own the equipment. The verifications delay truck drivers and reduce their earning power because most drivers are paid by the load and earn nothing when sitting in lines.

Trucking company executives in Northern and Southern California reported Monday that the ILWU has since backed off on its verification demands.

This period of uncertainty in interpreting the new contract and adding clarity to disputed provisions could drag on for awhile. ILWU international officers are leaving this week for the union’s once-every-three-years convention, which will be held the week of June 8 in Hawaii. Those conventions normally result in the passage of resolutions on a number of issues and the nomination of officers for the next three years.

During the coming weeks, individual incidents will be addressed by local arbitrators in the various ports, but coastwide guidance on important issues could take longer to develop..

The new contract calls for a totally new arbitration system in which each port range will have a panel of three arbitrators -- one nominated by the ILWU, one nominated by the PMA and a third, professional arbitrator with no previous affiliation with either the union or the PMA. However, the new arbitration system has yet to be implemented.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bill.mongelluzzo@ihs.com and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo