Theres talk of a longshoremens strike after contract talks stall
Labor negotiations covering U.S. ports from Maine to Texas have taken a sharp turn for the worse, and the International Longshoremen’s Association now says there could be a strike — the first in decades — in less than six weeks.
The current contract covering Charleston and the other ports expires Sept. 30. Maritime businesses fear that shippers and their clients could start diverting cargo to West Coast ports as the date draws closer.
Negotiations between unionized East Coast and Gulf Coast port workers and their maritime employers started in March and broke down Wednesday in Florida, just as the latest round was starting.
The ILA claims that negotiators were given an unacceptable ultimatum, while the United States Maritime Alliance claims that the union was unwilling to compromise.
Billy Adams, executive director of the S.C. Stevedores Association in Charleston, was in Delray Beach participating on the management side. He said the breakdown came as a surprise, but he takes the strike threat seriously.
“I think there could be some truth to it,” Adams said. “We were shocked when we walked in today and (the ILA) said they were going to cease negotiating.”
Adams said some points of contention involve work rules at the Port of New York and New Jersey, although the “master contract” covers all East Coast and Gulf Coast ports.
“Charleston does not have the problems that are causing all the heartache,” he said.
Charleston ILA Local 1422 President Ken Riley was also at the talks. He said the speed with which USMX issued a long statement criticizing the ILA suggests that it was prepared for the impasse.
The hard lines drawn by the ILA and USMX come in stark contrast to earlier reports of cooperation and progress, with agreements on port automation and labor jurisdiction over truck chassis pools.
On Wednesday, the head of USMX, James Capo, issued a statement describing the ILA leadership as “uncompromising” and “unwilling to have a meaningful discussion” about issues including work rules. Longshoremen typically work on an on-call basis, and are guaranteed a certain number of hours’ pay if they are called, regardless of how long they work.
“The ILA’s posture is contrary to the history of cooperation that has characterized these negotiations in the past and, since 1977, has led to agreements without any disruption to the supply chain and port operations on the East and Gulf coasts,” Capo said.
The union said USMX negotiators presented an ultimatum when a contract committee met, then broke off the talks.
“They just came and said that until we were willing to agree that employers didn’t have to pay for inefficiencies, and we didn’t know what they meant, then the talks were off,” said ILA spokesman James McNamara.
“It was kind of a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude,” he said. “The talks broke down after only about 20 minutes of meeting.”
Capo said maritime employers want to address “archaic practices, among them ‘low-show’ jobs that pay some ILA members for 24 hours of work even if they are only on the job for a few hours a day.”
McNamara said USMX is cherry-picking statistics from certain ports to make it seem as if union workers are overpaid. He said the ILA will likely ask USMX to present a full contract proposal, rather than continuing with committee meetings.
“If we review it and reject it, and September 30 arrives, then we are likely looking at a strike,” he said.
Talk of a potential strike is not uncommon during labor negotiations, but this is the first time the threat has been seriously raised during the port negotiations this year.
“We are hopeful that talks between the parties can resume and that there will not be any work stoppage or disruption to the flow of commerce,” said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority.
Reach David Slade at 937-5552 or Twitter @DSladeNews.