West Coast Longshoremen ratify contract, make progress on second
The ILWU and the PMA said that they had reached a tentative agreement on terms for health benefits, subject to agreement on other issues.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents employers, said Tuesday that they had reached a tentative agreement on terms for health benefits, subject to agreement on other issues, as they continue negotiations on a new labor contract.
The announcement follows approval by ILWU members on Monday of a separate contract with grain elevator operators in Washington and Oregon.
The ILWU and PMA said they have agreed not to discuss the terms of the tentative agreement as contract talks continue, but health care — including discussion of how to pay for the tax mandated by the Affordable Care Act on high-cost, high-benefit health care plans — is said to have dominated contract talks. There has been speculation that the two sides might agree to a shorter-term contact instead of the usual six-year pact because of uncertainty about the future of the Affordable Care Act.
The contract being negotiated by the ILWU and the PMA covers nearly 20,000 longshore workers at 29 West Coast ports. The previous agreement expired at 5 p.m. on July 1. Talks began on May 12 and are continuing.
Earlier this week, members of the ILWU who work at grain elevators in the Pacific Northwest voted 1,475 to 193 in favor of a contract with Louis Dreyfus Commodities, United Grain Corp. and Columbia Grain.
That agreement with the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association ended a lockout at Portland’s Columbia Grain and Vancouver, Wash.’s United Grain facilities that had been going on for more than a year. ILWU members had continued to work at the two Louis Dreyfus facilities in Portland and Seattle without a contract. ILWU members will return to United and Columbia on Wednesday.
The last contract between the three companies and the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association expired in September 2012. ILWU members were locked out of the United Grain facility on Feb. 27, 2013, after the company claimed an investigation showed a union member sabotaged equipment. Columbia locked out workers on May 4, 2013.
The new contract could also affect an agreement the ILWU has with TEMCO, which has facilities in Portland, Tacoma, and Kalama, Wash., as that agreement has a provision (similar to a "most favored nation clause" in a trade treaty) to adjust the contract if the other companies reached more favorable terms.
Details of the agreement were not provided beyond the employers saying it ensures operations will run smoothly and allow terminal operators to remain competitive, while providing well-paid employment to ILWU members. The union noted all picketing has ceased, and the parties have agreed to drop all pending National Labor Relations Board complaints and other legal actions associated with the dispute.
The ILWU had previously reached agreements with EGT in Longview, Wash., and Kalama Export Co. The other terminals wanted contracts that were as favorable as those agreements so that they could effectively compete with those elevators.
Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, said he was not aware of the specific terms of the contract with the grain handlers, but expressed concern that Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee had put the grain export terminals at a disadvantage during the negotiations when he stopped providing state police escorts to grain inspectors when they crossed picket lines to do their jobs.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture then claimed it was unsafe for grain inspectors to work at the Port of Vancouver, Wash. Terminal of United Grain Corp., despite United Grain’s protests that there was no evidence of any safety issue.
Friedmann suggested it would be interesting to look at the productivity of the terminal now that union workers were returning to the terminal as compared with productivity during the period when they were not working at the facility and how that will impact the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture exports. Friedmann noted that terminals in the Pacific Northwest are facing another challenge because railroads are reducing the amount of grain and soybeans they move to the region in favor of moving crude oil from the Bakken formation.
On the talks between the ILWU and PMA, Friedmann said it was encouraging that the two sides are continuing to negotiate and negotiate privately rather than in the press. But he said agriculture and forest product shippers, forwarders and custom brokers in the region are less interested in seeing a rapid conclusion to the talks than in seeing a contract that “will assure the continued viability of West Coast ports in a quickly changing competitive environment.”
He noted West Coast ports are important for agriculture and forest product exporters, especially when reaching customers in important markets such as China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam.
If the contract that is reached does not make West Coast ports more productive and efficient, he noted that businesses may source product from other countries in South America or Australia, for example, or from Canada, or even from the U.S., but through East Coast and Gulf Coast ports.
He said his members want to see productivity at West Coast ports improved over the long term, and if that means that they have to “wait longer, that is fine.”