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Work stoppages reported at LA, Long Beach ports as labor talks seem to stall

Ongoing labor negotiations between longshore workers and employers at West Coast ports, including in Long Beach and Los Angeles, may have stalled again this week — though the two sides also seem to be at odds over the current state of the talks.

The labor talks, now more than 1 year old, have frequently appeared fraught, with the lag in an agreement making some shippers skittish, causing them to favor ports in other parts of the country.

But tensions seem to have increased further this week.

“Today, the ILWU is staging concerted and disruptive work actions that have effectively shut down operations at some marine terminals at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach,” the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents employers, said in a Friday, June 2, statement. “The union is also staging similar work actions that have shut down or severely impacted terminal operations at the ports of Oakland, Tacoma, Seattle and Hueneme.”

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s Local 13, however, disputed that characterization — while also lashing out at PMA.

“Cargo operations in the ports continue as longshore workers remain on the job,” the ILWU said in a Friday press release, though “(rank-and-file members) had taken it upon themselves to voice their displeasure with the ocean carriers’ and terminal operators’ position.”

An eventual contract would cover more than 22,000 longshore workers at 29 West Cost ports. The previous agreement expired on July 1, 2022, and talks began on May 10, 2022. The two parties meet in San Francisco for negotiations.

“Any reports that negotiations have broken down are false,” ILWU President Willie Adams said in a Friday statement. “We are getting there but it’s important to understand that West Coast dockworkers kept the economy going during the pandemic and lost their lives doing so. We aren’t going to settle for an economic package that doesn’t recognize the heroic efforts and personal sacrifices of the ILWU workforce that lifted the shipping industry to record profits.”

A spokesperson for the Port of Los Angeles, meanwhile, said there were reports up and down the coast of labor shortages at some terminals.

“All container terminals at the Port of Long Beach remain open,” Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero said in a written comment. “As we continue to monitor terminal activity, we urge the PMA and ILWU to continue negotiating in good faith toward a fair agreement.

“The national economy,” he added, “relies on an outcome that keeps goods moving through the San Pedro Bay ports, the most important gateway for trans-Pacific trade. We are optimistic our waterfront workforce and their employers will resolve their differences quickly.”

But nothing about the talks, which began in May 2022, has been quick.

And a report published in the Journal of Commerce said negotiations broke down Thursday, June 1, over wages.

That contrasted sharply with the recent optimism from industry observers, who had indicated in recent weeks that an agreement was expected to come soon.

Some union sources, meanwhile, have said PMA has been stalling.

“The approximately 12,000 Southern California-based longshore workers who move the nation’s cargo, Local 13’s news release said, “remain in an arduous fight with ocean carriers and terminal operators.”

Ocean carriers and terminal operators, the release continued, “made approximately $500 billion in net profit during the past two years as this essential workforce toiled around the clock to ensure delivery of the nation’s goods through a global pandemic.”

ILWU also said its requests are reasonable and are intended to provide workers with the “dignity and respect that they have fought hard to earn.”

Both sides signed agreements early in the negotiating process pledging there would be no work lock-outs or a strike. The parties also agreed not to make public statements about the substance of the ongoing talks.

Issues on the table include those related to terminal automation, and pay, benefits and pensions.

Last summer, the union and PMA announced that they had reached a tentative agreement on terms for health benefits. In February, both parties said they remained hopeful of reaching a deal “soon.”

And then in April, the union announced that a “tentative agreement” had been reached on some unspecified key issues.

But that same month, PMA said key issues remained unresolved.

Around that time, allegations surfaced that some terminal operations were being disrupted by job actions, which the union denied.

Still, it was clear tensions remained elevated.

A signed contract is important, port officials said, to bring back business from shippers concerned about disruptions on the docks and in warehouses. Those fears have been at least partly responsible for some shippers diverting care from Los Angeles and Long Beach to ports on the Gulf and East coasts. (Among the other reasons are a desire to diversify shipping routes after pandemic-era backlogs, and shifting sea routes as Southeast Asian countries become more popular exporters in the wake of trade disputes with China.)

Officials at the ports of LA and Long Beach have expressed concerns that some of that business may be permanently lost if a labor contract isn’t signed soon.

Following a cargo surge during the pandemic, cargo numbers have seen double-digit percentage drops for months now. Several factors are at play, including a slowdown in consumer goods spending and an uncertain economy.

But the delayed contract deal has also played a role, port executives said, adding that a resolution is needed soon to reassure shippers and get them to return the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, which has typically been the two busiest in the nation.

New York surpassed both last year, for the first time in decades.

“This has been an ongoing concern throughout the negotiations,” Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation, said on Friday.

Companies will not return to West Coast ports, he added, until the two sides agree on and ratify a final contract.

“This is why a lot of the cargo is shipping to the Gulf and East coasts,” Gold said in a telephone interview. “We’re hoping this will be short-lived, but there’s no telling. Anytime you see these disruptions, it’s a problem and folks are not going to go back until there’s stability.”

Disruptions, he said, have been reported by the federation’s customers.

“We understand Oakland is essentially shut down and that L.A. and Long Beach have been hit as well,” Gold said. “The parties need to get back to the table and get a deal done.”

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Source: Orange County Register

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