For the first time since late October, hopeful signs are emerging from talks between West Coast terminal operators and the Longshore union.
If those positive developments lead to a new long-term contract, the port slowdown that has plagued 29 West Coast ports since Halloween could be moving toward an end. Terminal operators and shipping lines have been without a contract with the Longshore union since July 1.
Waterfront insiders say that after months of generally unfruitful talks, the two sides are quickly moving toward resolution of their differences.
Dean McGrath, president of International Longshore Workers Union Local 23 in Tacoma said Tuesday the he’s heard “very positive reports” from the negotiations between the Pacific Maritime Association and the ILWU in San Francisco.
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The Pacific Maritime Association represents shipping lines and terminal operators on the West Coast in negotiations with the union.
The PMA Monday said a tentative agreement had been reached at the table in solving a key issue in the talks, what workers will inspect the truck trailers that are used to transport the box-like shipping containers over the road when they arrive at the shipping terminals.
Shipping lines formerly owned their own fleets of those trailers, called chassis in the shipping business, and controlled who maintained them. Many of those chassis have been sold to leasing companies who want other less-well-paid workers to handle chassis maintenance.
The two sides reported in September they had reached a tentative settlement of the medical benefits issue in the proposed contract. Union members now have a generous medical benefits plan that might fit the definition of a so-called “Cadillac plan” under the Affordable Care Act triggering extra tax payments.
After more than five months of negotiations didn’t produce an agreement, productivity on the docks began declining shortly after Halloween. The PMA blamed the union for the slowdown. The union said terminal mismanagement and changes in the shipping business that created complex and unsafe conditions on the docks were responsible for the reduction in the pace of cargo handling.
That slowdown rippled through the economy with shippers ranging from potato and Christmas tree growers to retailers and manufacturers complaining they weren’t able to ship goods to overseas customers or to procure imported goods for sale.
A federal mediator joined the talks after the holidays in hopes of finding common ground among the parties.
The shipping backup was complicated when terminal operators canceled night shifts for Longshore crews saying working at night in the terminals overflowing with containers wasn’t productive. The union countered that that night shift work was essential to clearing up the backlog.
If agreement is reached — and some waterfront observers think that could happen as soon as the end of this week — it could take weeks or months to return the terminals to their normal workflows. The union maintains that the shipping lines themselves will have to make substantial changes in the way they operate their terminals in order to make that happen.