Labor Actions Widen – ILWU Slowdown Spreads North

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Labor Actions Widen – ILWU Slowdown Spreads North
Actions Now At Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland

Disruption Enters Third Week;
Threatens Commerce and Labor Negotiations

SAN FRANCISCO (July 25, 2008) – Continuing disruptive labor actions by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are entering their third week and are now rolling to the Port of Oakland, the Pacific Maritime Association said.

Some terminals are reporting extreme productivity falloffs in the servicing of vessels over the last two weeks at the Southern California ports, the busiest container ports in the nation. Rather than heed the call to resume normal productivity levels in the ports, however, the Union leaders are expanding their actions against the ports to the Bay Area. Productivity levels in Oakland are off this week at an average of over 15% with falloff in some terminals over the last four days of as much as 40%. There is growing frustration that the ILWU is engaging in these deliberate job actions undermining productivity and the contract negotiations. Despite the slowdown tactics, the PMA has exercised extraordinary patience and continues to negotiate in good faith hoping to avoid disruption at the ports. 

Over the last two weeks, more than a third of the vessels in southern California have had productivity drops of over 20%. More than one in ten have had productivity fall over 30%. This has resulted in disruption of schedules, with some vessels forced to sail leaving cargo and empty containers on the docks in order to maintain schedules.

This coordinated action over the last two weeks has led to increasing congestion on the docks which will compound the effects of the slowdown. Terminal operators have been forced to hire additional labor in an effort to try to offset the slowdown as much as possible, incurring substantial additional costs, and in effect subsidizing the disruptive activities. Ships have also been forced to burn more fuel and incur the higher costs associated with that to make up time lost as a result of the lower productivity in the ports.

The cumulative impact of these actions comes at a time when the U.S. economy can ill afford another hit. The expansion of the job actions may also threaten the course of negotiations on a new labor agreement between the ILWU and the PMA’s 71 member companies including cargo carriers, terminal operators and stevedores on the West Coast.

On top of coordinated unit breaks that first began July 11, ILWU members are engaging in a range of actions designed to slow operations, such as driving tractors at slower speeds. Because the previous waterfront contract expired July 1 and the Union refused to extend it, even temporarily, there are currently no means to arbitrate these matters or enforce against disruptive tactics, including coordinated work slowdowns.

ILWU-sanctioned work slowdowns are an often-used tactic by the Union to attempt to exert leverage in contract talks. The slowdown tactics employed by the ILWU in 2002 resulted in a halting of port operations on the entire West Coast, prompting federal intervention that resulted in the re-opening of the ports.

The West Coast longshoremen are the highest-paid blue-collar workers in America. Average full-time wages for fully registered workers exceed $136,000. ILWU members also enjoy fully employer-paid health benefits, with no premiums or deductibles and 100 percent coverage for standard medical benefits. Based on a tentative agreement, those fully-paid benefits would continue.

Since negotiations began March 17, the ILWU has engaged in activities apparently aimed at creating leverage in the talks:

  • On May 1, the ILWU conducted an illegal strike of all West Coast ports. The Union brought cargo operations to a virtual standstill in defiance of orders by the independent Coast Arbitrator. Although the Union claimed individual members of the Union were choosing to use the day to protest U.S. military involvement overseas, the Los Angeles Times reported that it could not find evidence of workers taking part in protests.  
  • On July 1, the Union refused to extend, the six-year labor agreement after it expired, sending a disturbing signal to shippers and the public about the reliability of the West Coast ports. In past negotiations, Union refusal to extend a contract has generally signaled the onset of work slowdowns. In 2002, the Union refused to sign a contract extension on Sept. 23rd – and crippling slowdowns ensued three days later.
  • On July 11, operations slowed down at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach because of a unilateral change made by the ILWU guiding how workers take their mid-shift breaks. Typically, workers stagger their breaks to ensure continuous operations. Now, they take “unit breaks” at the same time, bringing a temporary halt in operations up to 30 minutes or more at a time. The PMA does not dispute the right of workers to breaks – that’s not the issue. Rather, under the contract, only the employers may order “unit breaks” – and arbitrators have found that when the Union orders such practice, it is an illegal work stoppage.
  • Also July 11, several ILWU workers in Tacoma walked off the job, bringing operations at one terminal to a halt, and creating delays that left 82 American export containers on the docks as a ship sailed.
  • Since July 20, coordinated job actions in the Port of Oakland have slowed productivity in the Bay Area by an average of over 15% with some terminals showing productivity declines of over 40%.

Keeping the ports open, safe, productive and secure are critical to the American economy. The West Coast ports generate almost $1.3 trillion in domestic business impacts – representing 11 percent of total U.S. gross domestic product – and support more than 8 million direct and indirect U.S. jobs.

The contract covers wages, benefits and conditions of employment for the more than 26,000 ILWU members and identified casuals working at 29 West Coast ports in California, Oregon and Washington.

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