Labor Talks to Start in 2022 at Congested West Coast Ports

Date: Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Source: The Wall Street Journal

U.S. shippers struggling with supply-chain gridlock on the West Coast face new concerns in the coming year as dockworkers and marine terminals gird for talks on a new labor contract.

The private companies that operate port facilities from Washington state to Southern California are due to begin negotiations next year on a multiyear agreement with the union representing 22,400 dockworkers to replace the contract that expires in July 2022, raising the potential for new turmoil over bargaining that has been highly contentious in previous years.

The talks with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which happen about every six years, led to severe labor disruptions and shipping delays during the last cycle in 2014 and 2015. This time, the discussions expected to begin early next year will follow some of the worst seaport congestion in memory, as a pandemic-driven imports surge has overwhelmed container terminals and triggered record backlogs of container ships off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

“I don’t see an end in sight, especially with the ILWU contract negotiations next year,” said Caryn Blanc, managing partner at the Kearny, N.J.-based Triangle Group, a logistics firm that provides ocean shipping, trucking and warehousing services to major retailers.

The union this month rejected an offer by port terminal operators to delay negotiations until 2023. The employers wanted to extend the existing contract because fears over potential disruptions during the talks could worsen ongoing supply-chain bottlenecks.

ILWU International President Willie Adams said in a Tuesday statement that everyone should welcome the prospect of collective bargaining “as fundamental to the wellbeing of our ports rather than prognosticating disaster.”

Importers during earlier negotiating rounds brought goods in early and diverted cargo to Gulf and East Coast ports to mitigate potential supply-chain holdups. Their options this year are more limited because shipments already are severely backed up at seaports and across inland supply chains.

The continuing congestion leaves shippers in a bind. If they bring in cargo early or shift to alternate gateways they risk exacerbating the vessel backups. “If they wait and see if there is disruption, then what?” said Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain at the National Retail Federation. “They don’t want to be caught flat-footed.”

The ILWU contract covers about 15,400 full-time and 7,000 part-time dockworkers at ports stretching from Bellingham, Wash., to San Diego. Most workers aren’t directly employed by the terminals. The facilities order unionized workers for shifts each day or night based on needs.

The negotiations, which involve 70 employers at 29 ports, often grind on for months. Disagreements in past talks have led to shipping congestion. Employers have accused workers of slowdowns, while workers have claimed employers were mismanaging operations.

During the talks that began in 2014 and dragged into 2015, dozens of ships backed up off Southern California causing delays that cost individual retailers millions of dollars in increased costs and lost sales. In 2002, employers locked out workers for 10 days at one point before President George W. Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act covering oversight of union activities to open up ports.

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