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Despite the appointment of a federal mediator with a track record of success, the bitterness at the core of US west coast labour contract negotiations seems to be worsening.
Labour contract talks between employers represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshore Warehouse Union (ILWU) began last May, ahead of the expiry of the previous six-year contract on 1 July.
But although there were initial signs of progress between the PMA, negotiating for shipping lines and terminal operators at 29 west coast ports, and the ILWU which represents around 14,000 port workers, the lack of contract agreement and increased tension between the parties has hindered productivity and contributed to chronic port congestion.
And with California’s ports edging towards gridlock, a letter sent on Friday to the chiefs of the PMA and ILWU, signed by some 175 industry trade associations, pleads with the two sides to compromise and reach a deal quickly.
They express “disappointment” and “concern” at media exchanges of “accusations by both sides of improper tactics”, and the letter outlines “the serious threat posed to US manufacturers and to the economy of the nation”.
It says: “As customers of your ports, and industries affected by their operations, our members desperately need this negotiation to be concluded and operations returned to normal levels of throughput.
“The stakes are extremely high and the uncertainty at west coast ports is causing great reputational and economic harm to our nation.”
It adds that sales of American exports are “clouded in uncertainty” resulting in manufacturers having to slow or stop production.
The unenviable job of ‘banging the heads together’ of the PMA and ILWU falls to one of the most experienced arbitrators from the offices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS), Scot Beckenbaugh.
The extent of Mr Beckenbaugh’s task is highlighted by the rhetoric of recent statements from the two sides.
PMA officials said last week: “Since late October 2014, the ILWU has crippled what were fully productive terminals in the Pacific Northwest and Oakland, and exacerbated a difficult congestion issue at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach by intentionally withholding dozens of essential skilled workers each shift for the past 10 weeks.”
Meanwhile, the ILWU’s president Robert McEllrath said in a statement, referring to the PMA’s decision to suspend some night shifts: “The employer is making nonsensical moves like cutting back on shifts at a critical time, creating gridlock in a cynical attempt to turn public opinion against workers.”
Nevertheless, the 175 desperate manufacturers, farmers, wholesalers, retailers, distributors and transport and logistics providers that sent the appeal to Mr McEllrath and to the chair and CEO of the PMA, James McKenna, will hope that Mr Beckenbaugh can work his mediating magic before further damage is done.
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