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Longshore union accuses terminal operator of disrupting West Coast contract talks

The ILWU said a stevedoring company is trying to get the National Labor Relations Board involved in awarding jobs that by contract should go to its members.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — In the first concrete sign that things aren't going all that well in the contract negotiations between the longshore union and employers at West Coast ports, the longshore union said the operator of the largest ocean terminal in Seattle is disrupting the talks by getting the National Labor Relations Board involved in a spat with an unrelated union.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents about 15,500 registered dockworkers, said in a statement Tuesday that stevedoring company SSA colluded with an unidentified union to trigger a hearing by the labor board at which, according to the ILWU, SSA will pick another workforce to perform jobs that by contract should go to members of the longshore union.

“We are shocked that SSA is taking such an action, and we are currently regrouping to determine how to proceed in negotiations while we watch an employer violate the very provision of the contract over which the parties were bargaining,” ILWU Coast Committeeman Cameron Williams said in the statement.

Contract talks between the Pacific Maritime Union, which represents the terminal operators at the ports, and the ILWU have been going on since the middle of May. Although it wasn't unexpected that the negotiations would drag out for a long time, retailers and other importers who rely on the ports have been worried that their supply chains could face yet another major disruption if the talks turn sour and the cargo terminals are hit with slowdowns or lockdowns.

The ports were the focal point of a huge logjam last year that left container ships stranded outside the ports because of a massive influx of imports from Asia and a lack of space, equipment and labor from the coast to the Midwest to handle the flow of goods. This year, many U.S. retailers have been bringing in merchandise sooner than in past years to avoid similar disruptions including possible labor action at the ports.

Representatives of the PMA and SSA didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the ILWU's statement.

According to the longshore union, the issue involving SSA and the unidentified union involves "cold ironing," a process that allows ships to use shore power while docked. Cold ironing, the longshore union said, is work that the employers expressly agreed to assign to the ILWU over a decade ago and that the ILWU exclusively performs in the Pacific Northwest. 

"Employers using the NLRB to circumvent the assignment of work to ILWU represented employees is an important issue that the ILWU and the PMA addressed in 2008 bargaining," the longshore union said. "For the past six weeks, the parties have been discussing multiple employer past contract violations in this context and now another instance of this is taking place."

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that contract talks had been hampered by a conflict between the ILWU and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers over who maintains equipment at a Seattle terminal.

Representatives of IAM didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment on any role the union may have in the dispute with SSA.

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