Labor Leaders Optimistic Over Port Contract Talks

Gene Seroka and Marty Walsh
Gene Seroka (left) and Marty Walsh at the Port of Los Angeles in November 2021. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

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With negotiations expected to begin soon between the 22,000-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, ILWU leaders are expressing confidence that the two sides will reach an agreement — without an interruption in work — before the June 30 deadline for the current contract expiration.

“We will get an agreement,” ILWU President Willie Adams said April 12. “Everybody ought to tone it down and stop all the rhetoric. We have been negotiating — the ILWU and our employers — we’ve been negotiating since the 1930s. There are adults on both sides of the table and it’s called the process.”

Adams made the comments during an interview with Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka conducted as part of Seroka’s monthly report on port activity.

The talks come against a backdrop of supply chain challenges, a tight labor market and midterm elections in November.

The Biden administration, and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in particular, are watching the process closely. In the past several months, Walsh has visited the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Seattle and Tacoma. He recently told Transport Topics that he is optimistic an agreement can be reached, but said he’s prepared to travel to the West Coast if asked by either party in the negotiations.

“The one thing, or concern, that I’ve not heard a complaint about in the supply chain is the workers. No one has complained about the quality of the work by the truck drivers or the longshoremen,” Walsh said. “I think everyone is aware of the situation we are in today. But these are very seasoned negotiators on both sides. I’m not concerned.”

Industry experts and shippers are watching the negotiations closely. Union and management representatives have reassured port leaders, shippers and retailers that discussions will stay focused on the key economic and workplace issues.

Container volumes continue to set records. The Port of Los Angeles on April 12 said it processed 2,682,034 20-foot equivalents during the first quarter, a 3.5% increase over the year-ago Q1 volume of 2,592,430 containers. March alone was good for the third-best month in the port’s 115-year history. Other ports along the East and West Coasts also reported record or near-record Q1 numbers.

Overseas shipping rates also have soared. Maersk, the world’s second-largest shipping company, on Feb. 9 said 2021 was a record year buoyed by “exceptional market conditions which led to record-high growth and profitability.”

Maersk ranks No. 4 on the Transport Topics Top 50 list of the largest global freight carriers.

Shipping rates, which skyrocketed in 2021, have eased but remain high. The Drewry’s composite World Container Index decreased by 1.4% the week of April 7 to a cost of $8,041 to move one 40-foot equivalent container from Shanghai to the U.S. That’s down from $10,375 in mid-September but still 64% higher than last April’s $4,911.

Adams noted that companies have reported record profits during the pandemic, and his group expects some of that money to reach workers who have kept the ports operating.

“We’re talking about a gold rush that has happened,” he said. “Nobody is talking about all of the money that these foreign companies have made. All we offer is our labor — we don’t make business decisions. But we are the best workforce on this planet, bar none.”

Throughout the pandemic, port leaders have regularly praised ILWU workers for staying on the job, especially during the early days and before vaccines were developed. The union said more than 1,700 dockworkers fell ill during the pandemic. As of last summer, two had died.

“We were all so heartened at the beginning of COVID, when no one knew what was going to happen, that the ILWU leadership sat down with the employer’s association and others including the ports to work on health and safety measures to make sure we had the best Personal Protective Equipment and we were cleaning machines and the communications devices,” Seroka said.

In November, the Pacific Maritime Association requested a one-year contract extension amid supply chain challenges, but ILWU rejected the offer and confirmed it wanted to open negotiations on a new contract in spring 2022.

“If people look what we did over the past few years, we collectively bargained agreements to get through COVID,” ILWU Coast Committeeman Frank Ponce De Leon said. “We’ve kept things moving. We’ve kept people safe and we didn’t close any of our ports — all up and down the West Coast.”

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