West Coast ports remain open as ILWU continues negotiations for new deal

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Though the six-year union contract between International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the multi-employer Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) expired July 1, union members continue to load and unload ships on West Coast ports. Neither side is publicly discussing progress in the talks, which have been under way since May 12. Key bargaining issues include how to deal with new technologies like robotics that will reduce the need for workers, and how to maintain health benefits after 2018, when the Affordable Care Act’s so-called “Cadillac” tax kicks in.

The ILWU-PMA contract covers nearly 20,000 longshore and clerk members at 29 West Coast ports. It’s the largest contract for the 37,000-member union, which represents dock workers in California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii.

The PMA bargaining takes place as ILWU members remain locked out of grain export terminals in Portland, Vancouver, and Seattle. The companies operating those terminals, which have locked out ILWU members since February 2013, aren’t part of the PMA. The grain terminal operators are demanding that ILWU give them the same concessions it gave to their competitor EGT in Longview, Washington. Those concessions include 12-hour shifts without overtime pay, the right to have managers run the control room, a company-approved hiring list separate from the regular ILWU hiring hall, and the right of employers to do union work in the event of a work stoppage.

Fears that PMA might ask for the same concessions have not been borne out, however. Neither ILWU nor PMA appeared to be getting ready for a strike or lockout. The two sides have issued joint statements about the negotiations, without going into detail. On July 7, the sides announced a three-day break from negotiations while ILWU took part in further negotiations with the Northwest grain exporters.

ILWU kept negotiating with PMA past the contract expiration in 2008, too, and the two sides were able to reach an agreement that preserved health benefits, gave raises of $5 an hour over six years, and lessened the impact of technological change on members. That settlement followed much-more-heated bargaining in 2002, which culminated in PMA employers locking out ILWU members for 10 days — until then-President George W. Bush asked a federal court to order employers to end the lockout.

This year’s ILWU bargaining positions at the PMA negotiations were determined in February and March at a two-week meeting in San Francisco of delegates from every West Coast port. At that meeting, delegates heard from representatives of dockworker unions from around the world, who pledged their support in the event of a dispute. The meeting established that priorities include fair raises, and maintaining health care and retirement benefits.

“Longshore members and clerks have made it clear that they want a contract with stronger safety provisions, more secure benefits, greater respect for ILWU jurisdiction, and a reasonable approach to new technology,” said ILWU President Bob McEllrath in the March 2014 issue of The Dispatcher, ILWU’s newspaper.

Technological change is once again threatening to decimate ILWU ranks. A case in point: In June, 180 dockworkers in Sydney, Australia, were notified they’d be laid off after their employer deploys driverless robots to take over cargo handling.

ILWU has grappled before with the challenge of technology: Starting in the 1960s, containerization diminished the need for ILWU members’ labor. The union responded by negotiating its Mechanization and Modernization Agreement in 1960, in which employers committed to give displaced members the work of maintaining and repairing the technologies that replaced them. Along similar lines, the 2002 ILWU contract opened the docks to bar scanners, automated manifest systems and GPS technology. The 2008 agreement permitted automated stacking cranes. In each case, maintenance and repair work was assigned to ILWU members to offset the job losses from new technologies, with some exceptions: The contract agreed that a number of terminals would be “red-circled,” meaning ILWU members would not do the work of maintaining and repairing cargo-handling equipment there. The arrangement sometimes put ILWU in competition with other unions. ILWU cited jurisdictional disputes as a primary factor in its decision to disaffiliate from the AFL-CIO in August 2013.

Preserving health insurance is another big priority. PMA’s health plan is one of the last of the good union health plans, with the employer picking up substantially all health care costs for employees and their dependents, and patients paying just $1 for prescriptions. But starting in 2018, under the 2010  Affordable Care Act (also referred to as Obamacare), employers would have to pay a 40 percent excise tax on the amount over $27,500 a year for family coverage. To avoid that draconian tax, employers around the country are seeking to make benefits less generous, shifting costs to workers.

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