West Coast Port Labor Dispute Hurting Minnesotans

News Wednesday that a deal between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) may likely end in a worker lockout wasn’t well received by Minnesota soybean farmers, who have already suffered financial losses due to the prolonged labor dispute.

“It’s been a very costly, cumbersome endeavor,” said Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council Director Drew Parsley, who farms near Baudette, Minn. “We’ve had containers sitting on the west coast for a month, now.

Drew Parsley

Drew Parsley

Parsley said that because the containers haven’t been moving properly, he has had to look to other routes to get his product to his customers in Asia.

“We had to go through Vancouver to get the containers out of the country,” he said. “They are now officially two months late and we are getting fined by our customers.”

In the midst of rancorous contract talks, the lead negotiator  PMA said Wednesday that management had made a “best offer” to dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports, warning that if an agreement isn’t reached, a worker lockout is likely.

In a Wednesday teleconference, Jim McKenna, PMA president and chief executive officer, outlined the terms of a five-year contract. He said the employers’ offer meets the ILWU’s two biggest demands: maintenance of their high-end health benefits and jurisdiction over maintenance and repair of truck chassis.

Wages for full-time longshore workers currently average $147,000 per year, according to a PMA statement. In addition to wage increases of roughly 3 percent per year, the deal includes fully paid health care that costs employers $35,000 per worker per year. The maximum ILWU pension would rise to $88,800 per year.

The news comes amidst reports that although talks are continuing, a collapse in negotiations is imminent. McKenna said in his remarks that a lockout could occur in the next 5-10 days, according to a CBS news station in San Francisco.

ILWU spokesman Craig Merilees struck a more optimistic tone. “The good news is that progress is being made and that they’re getting close and if they just stick to it and knuckle down, they can have an agreement before long,” he said to KCBS.

For Parsley, who is viewing the dispute with an eye on his Minnesota operation, there is little good news.

“It’s not only that they take the margin out of it, we’re getting delayed for payment and it’s become a non-profitable endeavor.

After nine months at the bargaining table, with a federal mediator sitting in for the past few weeks, the two sides are still far from an accord. The PMA has accused the ILWU of staging deliberate slowdowns up and down the West Coast, causing the chronic cargo backups that crippling U.S. ports and businesses. The union has vehemently denied the allegations, saying the cargo congestion is primarily due to the shortage of chassis and the advent of super-sized container ships.

“Our members have shown tremendous restraint in the face of ILWU slowdowns that have cut productivity by as much as 30, 40, even 50 percent,” McKenna said. “This offer puts us all-in as we seek to wrap up these contract talks and return our ports to normal operations.”

McKenna also said the union has recently made new demands, insisting on changes to the arbitration system that would give them the ability to unilaterally remove arbitrators who rule against them.

Citing dockworker slowdowns at major West Coast ports including Los Angeles, Long Beach Tacoma, Seattle and Oakland, McKenna said this offer “is as far as we can go at this point,” and is the best chance at averting what he termed as a “coast-wide meltdown.”