For the first time since the grueling contract negotiations of 2014-15, the presidents of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) said they are willing to raise with their memberships the possibility of extending the existing agreement beyond the July 1, 2019, expiration date in the interests of labor peace.
This discussion at the TPM Conference between ILWU President Robert McEllrath and PMA President James McKenna left the distinct impression that labor and management at U.S. West Coast ports agree on more issues than they disagree upon. When asked directly if he would agree to a contract extension, McEllrath said that if McKenna writes a formal letter requesting discussions, he will take the next step, which is to present it to his membership for consideration. The exchange drew strong support from the packed ballroom at TPM, especially the almost 600 beneficial cargo owners, many of whom suffered through four months of work slowdowns, employer retaliation and the worst West Coast port congestion since the 2002 contract negotiations.
McEllrath and McKenna offered different views as to why the contract negotiations spun out of control, but the leaders agreed they were both surprised by the events that had transpired. In the aftermath, they said, the ILWU and PMA now share the same goal, which is to make West Coast ports the preferred gateway for U.S. trade with Asia as they build upon their geographic and infrastructure advantages by earning a reputation for efficiency and reliability. “Neither organization envisioned what was going to happen,” McKenna said. McEllrath said a repeat of the 2014-15 contract negotiations is not in the cards, as far as the ILWU is concerned. “No one likes to get to the point where we’re in a strike situation,” he said.
West Coast labor and management are keenly aware of the competition they face from their counterparts on the East and Gulf coasts, which reported double-digit increases in container volume from late 2014 through the spring of 2015, while West Coast ports languished. The competition will intensify later this year when vessels with capacities of about 14,000 twenty-foot-equivalent units will be capable of transiting the expanded Panama Canal on all-water services to the East Coast.