East Coast Ports Hit Speed Bump in Fast-Track Labor Talks

Date: Friday, June 30, 2023
Source: Wall Street Journal

Now that West Coast dockworkers have reached a tentative deal on a six-year labor contract, shipping industry officials are turning to East Coast and Gulf Coast ports, where efforts to get talks on a fast track are hitting speed bumps.

The International Longshoremen’s Association, which covers ports from Maine to Texas, told its local chapters to begin negotiations with employers late last year in a bid to reach an early agreement, in contrast to the protracted negotiations on the West Coast that closed out in June, nearly a year after the last labor pact expired.

But ILA President Harold Daggett told members in March to break off talks, signaling a tougher line.

Daggett, who had been meeting with the United States Maritime Alliance, which represents ocean carriers and port terminal operators across the East and Gulf coasts, said in a March letter to dockworkers that the employer group had “been unwilling to meet the International’s demands.”

Alliance officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The ILA contract doesn’t expire until Sept. 30, 2024. But importers and exporters had seen the early talks as a positive sign at a time of rising tensions between unions and employers.

The West Coast port labor talks, which dragged on for more than a year, coincided with sporadic disruptions at some of the nation’s busiest seaports from California to Washington state. Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su spent several days shuttling between the two sides to help broker a deal and to restore a sense of stability into supply chains heading into what is traditionally the peak importing season for retailers.

During the past year, East Coast and Gulf Coast ports have gained a bigger share of U.S. container imports as big retailers diverted some of their inbound shipments to avoid potential disruptions on the West Coast. Ports including Georgia’s Port of Savannah and Port Houston are hoping to keep business they gained during the past year, in part by demonstrating labor stability.

Labor tensions across unionized freight businesses have been running high in recent years as front-line workers negotiate new contracts for the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic strained shipping operations and brought new health risks to cargo handlers.

West Coast dockworkers won a 32% wage increase over a tentative six-year deal as well as distribution of a one-time “hero bonus” for working through the pandemic. They are expected to vote on the contract in the coming months.

Other unions are also pushing for recognition. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is threatening to strike if United Parcel Service doesn’t offer a contract that “honors the sacrifices” its workers made during the health crisis. Dockworkers in British Columbia on Wednesday cited the risks they took during the pandemic as they issued a warning they would strike from July 1 unless employers offer a better deal.

Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain at the National Retail Federation, said his group is closely following the Teamsters and the Canadian dockworker talks. Gold said the trade association isn’t too concerned about the ILA negotiations because there is still more than a year to go on that contract, but he said importers are always looking for stability.

The contract covering the East and Gulf coasts offers different challenges than its counterpart covering the West Coast. In southeastern states such as Georgia, state employees operate the cranes that load and unload containerships. But the ports still rely on unionized dockworkers for other operations.

Unlike on the West Coast, local union chapters on the East and Gulf coasts negotiate agreements separate from the master contract, but the agreements are usually made in coordination with the ILA.

ILA spokesman James McNamara said contract talks aren’t likely to resume until after the union’s quadrennial convention is held in late July in Florida, where Daggett is standing for re-election unopposed.

“We’re still on safe ground in terms of time,” McNamara said. But the final year of the contract “is fast approaching.”

[Read from the original source.]