The International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) and U.S. Maritime Alliance (USMX) resumed contract negotiations on Tuesday, but sources say efforts to reform work rules and improve productivity in the Port of New York and New Jersey are likely to overhang national talks.
USMX is negotiating a master contract with the ILA for handling containerized cargo at 14 ports cargo on the East and Gulf coasts. The two sides are being assisted by the U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
Originally scheduled to expire at the end of last September, the current contract has been extended twice: first in late September for 90 days, then in late December to Feb. 6, next Wednesday.
ILA spokesman Jim McNamara said late Tuesday the two sides were continuing to meet—both committees of about 20 members on both sides, as well as smaller subcommittees working on various issues such as jurisdiction. Talks were scheduled to continue on Wednesday and Thursday.
Carrier sources tell American Shipper
that reaching agreement on local issues, particularly in the Port of New York and New Jersey, are key to the master contract.
"There has been no movement yet on New York issues," said one executive. "Meetings, obviously, are continuing. If there is no movement on New York, there would be no ability for a master contract."
Carriers are cautioning shippers about the potential for a work stoppage.
For example, on Tuesday, OOCL posted a statement on its Website saying, "In the event that an agreement cannot be reached by February 6th and a work stoppage occurs, OOCL wants to assure you that we will do everything possible to minimize disruptions and keep you constantly informed about changes in vessel schedules, cargo location, and terminal status."
Many carriers have filed with the U.S. Federal Maritime Commission planned surcharges of up to $1,000 per 40-foot container on cargo moving through U.S. and Canadian ports in the event of a a strike.
The ILA met Monday afternoon with the New York Shipping Association, which negotiates local issues in the Port of New York and New Jersey, and another carrier source said there have been about 50 hours of face-to-face meetings since last October on New York issues with little progress.
He said employers in New York would like to have ILA members work shifts rather than having the same gangs of men work a ship throughout its discharge and loading of cargo. He said current work practices leads to low productivity, and the need to hire large numbers of relief workers as the same crew remains with a ship, sometimes for 16 or 24 hours. In addition some union workers are paid the entire time a gang stays with a ship, even though they may be at home, even sleeping.
In other ports where longshoremen work in shifts, he said productivity is much higher.
Management is also trying to eliminate positions that have been criticized as “low-show” and “no-show” jobs by groups such as the Waterfront Commission of New York harbor.
The carrier source complained that while management has been trying to move to resolution, the ILA “keeps on coming up with new demands."
“It may be strategy and now they are going to begin seriously negotiating—there is the give, but we don’t know if there is going to be any take.”
If there is a strike, one carrier executive said he doubted carriers would try routing containers through Canadian or West Coast ports, predicting longshoremen in those ports "won't touch them."
Meanwhile, the National Retail Federation on Wednesday called on the ILA and USMX "to reach a new deal in order to bring much-needed stability and predictability to operations along the East and Gulf coast ports."
"The continued threat of a coast-wide port shutdown has wreaked havoc on the supply chain for the past year as the nation’s retailers, manufacturers, farmers, importers, exporters, and others who rely on the ports to move commerce. These groups have had to continuously prepare for a supply chain disruption and have implemented costly contingency plans to ensure their products reach market, be it cars on the showroom floor or shirts on the store shelf," the trade group said. "These emergency protocols to reroute goods and merchandise continue to come at significant costs to U.S. businesses, which invariably impacts American consumers."
NRF and other shipper groups have urged President Obama to use the Taft-Hartley act to prevent a costly coast-wide port shutdown.
"The only way the two sides can reach a deal is if they remain at the table. Under no circumstance should the ILA and the USMX leave the negotiations until a final, long-term contact is reached and plans for quick ratification are approved," NRF said, adding "Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, but we all need to be prepared if another coast-wide port strike can’t be averted." - Chris Dupin