As Americans celebrated Labor Day, there was no sign of a thaw in the frozen labor negotiations between the International Longshoremen's Association and employers of its members.
The situation is worrisome enough that the Virginia Port Authority issued a press release on Friday stating it and its operating company, Virginia International Terminals (VIT), have begun preparations for a potential work stoppage.
“The focus of the plan is to move as much cargo through the port as reasonably possible up to the strike deadline,” the port said.
“Our goal will be to do everything we can to ensure that all cargo is delivered prior to Oct. 1,” said Joseph A. Dorto, VIT’s president and chief executive officer. “VIT will do all possible to ensure our customers are taken care of in a timely and efficient manner.
“We believe our customers will immediately make plans to shift a portion of their cargo to West Coast ports – from 10 to 15 percent,” Dorto said. “The effect of this will not be felt here until October as cargo on the water today will still move to Virginia.”
It plans this week to “convene a meeting of critical port stakeholders to seek input and discuss what will happen in the event of a work stoppage and what will take place once labor returns to the terminals." The port authority identified those stakeholders as labor, ocean carriers, Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection, truckers and railroads, harbor pilots and tug companies.
Among the things to be discussed are extended gate hours at the terminals, working with railroads to schedule trains and hours of operations, developing an informational hotline that would be put in place during a strike, and other communications.
The ILA issued a press release late Friday saying it hopes to avoid a strike when its current contract with the U.S. Martime Alliance (USMX) expires at the end of September. But the union warned it is “making preparations for one if USMX holds to its last position of gutting wages and benefits.”
The ILA said it has formally requested USMX provide it with “their best and final offer so that the 200 ILA Wage Scale delegates can convene and take a vote on the proposal and also vote recommend a strike.”
The union said on Aug. 22, before the beginning of scheduled negotiations, James Capo, chairman and CEO of USMX “delivered the insulting and unexpected blow” by demanding “ILA give up its eight-hour guarantee that many port areas of the ILA have had for years. USMX also demanded that the ILA radically change the hard-fought contractual rules for the payment of overtime.
“These were items that should not even have been part of the master contract discussions, but USMX insisted that talks could not continue unless we agreed to negotiate these items,” the union said.
ILA President Harold Daggett complained “in all those years since 1977 (when the union last had a 'coastwide' strike), we have never been presented with a take it or leave it proposition as we were in late August.”
In a letter sent to Daggett on Friday, Capo said “I'm not sure how the ILA can expect a final offer when we have been unable to engage in any comprehensive negotiations for a new contract, including economic issues.
“At the previous negotiating sessions, most of the discussion centered around the ILA's demands regarding automation and chassis," he added. "After a great deal of effort and a willingness to compromise on the part of management, we were able to agree to reach agreement on both of those issues. The ILA had made it very clear how these agreements were absolutely critical to being able to successfully conclude an agreement on a new master contract.
“When we met during the week of August 20th, USMX presented the issues that we believed were critical to successfully reaching an agreement. Those issues all center around inefficiencies that have crept into our operations over the years. I'm referring to archaic work rules and manning practices, and the system of guarantees and overtime pay practices that result in millions of dollars being paid for time not worked.
“These inefficiencies are causing many of our ports to become prohibitively expensive, harming our competitive ability and threatening the long term viability of our operations," he said.
“USMX was hopeful that we would receive the same consideration from the ILA as we had given it on its critical issues. Instead, our presentations were simply rejected without any consideration, and when management objected to this lack of consideration, the ILA responded with a threat to strike."
Capo said “many of these issues are the same ones cited in a recent report compiled by the Waterfront Commission of New York and New Jersey. I'm somewhat at a loss to understand why the ILA would appear to be willing to have an outside agency attempt to force a solution on the parties, rather than have the parties address the issues in the collective bargaining arena, at the bargaining table, where they properly belong.”
The Waterfront Commission in March complained “the work relief structure promulgated under existing collective bargaining agreements breeds waste and favoritism and detracts from the competitiveness of the Port of New York-New Jersey.”
Capo said USMX is “ready and willing to engage in comprehensive bargaining to reach agreement on a new contract, including all economic issues.” But the organization said the bargaining must include substantive discussion on the issues such as work rules, manning practices, guarantees and overtime pay practices.
“We must discuss putting programs in place that will correct these issues over a period of time,” Capo said.
He added that “USMX does not believe it is in a position to present a final offer to the ILA for consideration by its Wage Scale Committee.” - Chris Dupin