Hope that increasingly contentious contract negotiations between the companies and labor union running West Coast ports would not deteriorate into a paralyzing lock out or strike was bolstered last week when federal mediators said they would join the talks.
On Jan. 5, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) announced it will join negotiations after being invited by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents about 20,000 dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports. The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represented the companies operating the container lines and terminals at those ports, requested federal mediation Dec. 22, but FMCS can only
intervene if invited by both sides or if the president of the United States imposes federal
mediation. As is its practice, the FMCS would not address future meeting dates and locations.
The development does not mean an immediate return to normalcy at the ports. In fact, at least one container line has notified the Federal Maritime Commission that it intends to move forward Jan. 15 with a “port congestion surcharge” of $1,000 per container to offset the rising costs of retrieving containers from congested terminals. The container lines backed off implemented those late last year after the FMC questioned whether they had been implemented properly. Still, a mediator has proven pivotal in resolving past contract disputes, according to Matt Carlson, president & CEO of the National Sporting Goods Association.
The development comes as the talks entered their eighth month, which ILWU International President Bob McEllrath called “unchartered territory.”
“This is the longest set of negotiations in recent history at least since 1971, when there was a 134-day strike,” McEllrath said at the union's Coast Longshore Caucus in late December.
While the parties have reached terms on a tentative agreement that will maintain ILWU health benefits and made progress in other areas – McEllrath said “there’s still a lot more to do before this can be settled in a way that protects our jobs and jurisdiction down the road.”
On Jan. 2, the PMA renewed its allegations that the ILWU was aggravating port congestion by withholding crane operators and other skilled labor needed to move cargo containers at Southern California ports that handle a significant percentage of consumer products imported from Asia.
The ILWU has attributed growing congestion to the container company's decision to sell their chassis fleets to non-ILWU, third-party leasing companies, increased container volumes, growing use of mega-ships carrying up to 14,000 containers, shortages of port truckers, tighter railroad capacity and a host of other factors.