Federal mediators to assist West Coast port labor talks

Federal mediators to assist West Coast port labor talks

Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service will assist labor negotiations that have held up shipments of some ag goods

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said this week it is prepared to assist the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore & Warehouse Union in its effort to finalize contract negotiations at West Coast ports.

The groups have been engaged in labor discussions since May, only reaching tentative agreement on health care plans, PMA said late last month.

Ag commodities including meat have been subject to slowing shipments due to the sluggish negotiations, the U.S. Meat Export Federation said. About $600 million worth of red meat exports move through the West Coast monthly.

Related: Seattle, Tacoma Port Worker Slowdowns Threaten Farm Exports

A ship is unloaded at the Port of Seattle. (Photo by Ron Wurzer/Getty Images)

PMA estimates "ILWU slowdown tactics" in the Pacific Northwest have reduced productivity there by as much as 60%, and slowdowns at the Port of Oakland have reduced productivity to 50% of normal.

PMA said crops are rotting, products aren't getting to customers, contracts are being canceled, local employees are getting furloughed and businesses are diverting future shipments away from the West Coast because of the slowdowns.

But ILWU International President Bob McEllrath last month said industry restructuring schemes and new business models have triggered "massive industry-induced congestion" at Pacific Coast ports.

Increased container volumes, use of new "mega-ships, shortages of port truckers, tighter railroad capacity and a host of other factors also have caused congestion, McEllrath said.

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Ultimately, he said ILWU would not be intimidated by industry efforts to blame workers and the union for congestion issues.

Related: West Coast Labor Strike Still Unsettled; Japan Concerned

"We're not going to roll-over for the employers," he said. "We've already reached terms on a tentative agreement that will maintain our health benefits – and we've made progress on some other important areas – but there's still a lot more to do before this can be settled in a way that protects our jobs and jurisdiction down the road," he said.

After the number of shifts for qualified crane operators dropped from an average of more than 110 per day to under 35 per day, PMA last week said the terminal congestion had reached a breaking point. The group requested fewer workers unloading ships at night in attempt to shift the focus to clearing containers in terminal yards, sparking continued back-and-forth between ILWU and PMA.

Both groups by Dec. 29 had requested federal mediation, a move supported by ag groups that called for a federal mediator in November.

FMCS on Monday said Deputy Director Scot Beckenbaugh, a senior FMCS mediator with extensive collective bargaining experience, has been assigned to the ILWU-PMA negotiations.

"Both sides need the right people in the room to get things finalized," ILWU's McEllrath said. "Indirect negotiations won't get us over the finish line."

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