Massive East Coast Dock Strike Averted; Washington Sighs in Relief

President Barack Obama now has one less headache. Just days before a deadline that could have crippled some 14 East Coast ports, the International Longshoreman’s Association reached a tentative agreement with representatives of the dock employers, averting a work stoppage that was looming on December 31 -- the same day that across-the-board spending cuts are set to go into effect at every federal agency, unless the White House can reach a deal with Republicans in Congress.

A mere three weeks after West Coast ports reopened after an eight-day strike by the clerical workers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, a different union -- the International Longshoreman’s Association -- was threatening a work stoppage that would have threatened the movement of consumer goods at 14 East Coast ports at a critical time in a battle between the White House and Congress.

Both the East Coast ILA and the West Coast ILWU have flexed considerable muscle in contentious contract talks over the past few weeks, causing alarm among shipping companies and retailers.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey estimated that a work stoppage at the East Coast ports would have cost $136 million a week in personal income and $110 million in economic output, according to Steven Greenhouse of the New York Times.

Federal mediators were brought into negotiations between the ILA and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, which represents the employers -- and the federal muscle seems to have worked in bringing about a tentative agreement on the main sticking point between the two parties: the employers’ attempt to roll back the share of container royalties earned by workers in addition to their hourly wages.

An extension of an additional 30 days of negotiation to resolve other outstanding issues was also granted. Those include "including delayed contributions to the union’s health care fund and annual raises that are below inflation," according to Greenhouse.

Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University, noted that both sides were likely leery about the possibility of a work stoppage. “There’s pressure, I think, on the union -- probably from the AFL-CIO and the White House -- not to have a strike right now,” Chaison said.

Labor leaders outside the ILA may well have been wary of a strike, especially in the wake of constant attacks on the labor movement from the right, most recently with the passage of right-to-work legislation in Michigan.

“The unions are taking the position that they are part of the solution and not the problem with job creation,” Chaison explained. “With a strike, that [could have] all [gone] out the window.” That’s one reason why Chaison predicted days ago that the two sides would reach an agreement without a work-stoppage.

Meanwhile, the ILWU’s longshore workers in the Pacific Northwest recently committed to keep working under a contract with grain companies they have overwhelmingly rejected. 

While the workers in the ILWU division representing grain sector dockworkers rejected the companies’ final contract terms, the workers were back on the docks as of this writing, because, union sources have confirmed, the employers invoked a legal maneuver to unilaterally implement contract terms not agreed to by the union after it employers deemed themselves at an impasse with the workers. Now officials at the West Coast union is are committed to the addressing the contract demands through legal channels.

Union officials at ILWU aren’t going into too many details about what the companies offered, but to put things into perspective, the union and the companies normally provide each other with 15 contract demands at the outset of bargaining. This time, the companies proposed 750 changes, and they haven’t budged. According to The Columbian, a newspaper in Washington State, employers are seeking changes that would allow greater "management flexibility" and the "opportunity to increase efficiencies."

“We believe that in light of a low-yielding harvest and corresponding high bushel prices, the profitable multinational grain merchants are using the circumstances to undermine a mature, 80-year contract with Longshoremen that’s made the Northwest one of the most productive grain export regions in the world,” said ILWU committeeman Leal Sundet in an  interview with Longshore & Shipping News, an ILWU Web site, last month.

No one planned for the ILA contract deadline to coincide with the deadline for a contract with the Northwestern grain companies, where longshore workers are represented by ILWU, an unrelated union. In fact, the deadline for a contract at the East Coast ports was originally in October, but after the two sides remained far apart, the deadline was extended.

While the two dockworkers’ unions are known for their strength, they are two very different organizations. The West Coast ILWU has a militant, left-wing history of confrontation with employers. The East Coast ILA draws its strength from the fact that like many workers in intermodal transport, their work cannot be sent offshore, and because the work requires a high level of skill (for example, in operating the massive cranes used to unload container ships), it is hard to hire replacement labor. But the East Coast union also has a long history of institutional corruption, despite the ILA having cleaned up its act in the years since federal prosecutors purged the influence of organized crime on the East Coast docks.

Had an ILA work stoppage at East Coast ports gone forward, Obama would have faced considerable pressure to put an end to it by invoking the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, a piece of legislation notorious for its anti-labor origins. That would have posed quite a problem for a president whose re-election owes much to the voter-turnout efforts of labor unions.

Now that a strike has been forestalled, and rendered highly unlikely at all during the president’s second term, there’s little doubt that a sigh of relief was breathed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Now everybody can return their attention to that year-end fiscal issue.


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