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West Coast longshore workers, employers issue ‘hopeful’ update on contract talks

Talks have been going on for nine months on a new contract for dockworkers, prompting retailers to ship imports to East and Gulf Coast ports.

LOS ANGELES (CN) β€” The union representing longshore workers at West Coast ports and the terminal operators that employ them issued an update on their contract negotiations that have been dragging on since this past May.

The International Longshore and Warehousing Union and the Pacific Maritime Association issued a joint statement Thursday saying they continue to negotiate and remain "hopeful" of reaching a deal soon.

The statement comes in the wake of reports that talks between one of the most powerful labor unions in the country and the coalition of international ocean carriers, terminal operators and stevedoring companies have been stalled for months over regional issues in Seattle while the big issues related to wages and automation of terminals remain unresolved.

The uncertainty over a new labor contract has contributed to a drop of imports at the two biggest U.S. container ports in LA and Long Beach as retailers, worried about disruptions at West Coast ports, have diverted cargo from Asia to ports on the Gulf Coast and East Coast.

"The parties have reached a tentative agreement on certain key issues, including health benefits, and remain committed to resolving remaining issues as expeditiously as possible," according to Thursday's statement. "Talks are continuing on an ongoing basis until an agreement is reached."

News reports purporting to know what is happening at the bargaining table are speculative at best, according to the joint statement.

The crane operators and other longshore workers that load and unload the massive container ships at the busy port terminals are among the best paid blue-collar workers anywhere, with union workers making on average close to $195,000 a year, according to the PMA. The biggest point of contention between the union and the employers over the years has been the push to automate more of the cargo-handling operations on the docks.

That automation would be the big top for the employers was made clear shortly before the start of the talks last year, when the PMA released a study urging the need for new technology to move cargo for the West Coast ports to remain competitive, facilitate cargo and job growth, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. That release so close to the start of the contract talks didn't go unnoticed and the union responded quickly.

β€œIt’s obvious that the PMA is issuing its report as posturing as we go into negotiations," ILWU Coast Committeeman Frank Ponce De Leon said in response. "However, much of what their report claims is counter to numerous previous reports on automated terminals that cite job loss and weakened efficiencies. The bottom line is that automation has killed jobs at the ports."

The West Coast ports have continued to operate without much of a hitch since the contract expired this past summer, and both sides have repeatedly said that there won't be any labor disruptions while they negotiate. Still, as retailers make plans for bringing in merchandise for the upcoming holiday season, it's likely that the unresolved talks will give them pause before committing their cargo to the Southern California container ports.

"While we remain hopeful for a quick resolution, additional information regarding a timeline for a final contract or other outstanding issues is still needed," Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation, said in an email. "We encourage the parties to remain at the table and work to get a deal done as soon as possible to provide certainty to the stakeholders who rely on West Coast ports."

Categories: Business Employment

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