In July, PPAI Media reported that negotiations between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) employer group and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) may wrap up in the August-September time frame. Well, it’s early November and there’s still no new labor contract governing the U.S.’s West Coast ports.

The Promo Perspective

Importers in the promotional products industry will likely have to continue to be flexible in their import strategies for the foreseeable future. The West Coast is the largest conduit for imported goods into the U.S., but the ongoing labor dispute and ad-hoc work stoppages have pushed many shippers to transfer traffic to the East and Gulf Coasts and Canada.

  • U.S. imports from Asia entering through West Coast ports during the first nine months of 2022 fell to 57.5%, down from 61.2% in 2021.
  • The East Coast’s share of Asian imports rose to 35.1% in 2022, up from 32.8% in 2021, and the Gulf Shore captured 7.1% percent this year, compared to 5.7% in 2021.

The ports are also not divorced from the uncertainties surrounding the ongoing railroad negotiations. The contract dispute has played into shippers’ decisions to route cargo to different ports.

Local Trouble

Jurisdictional issues at a terminal in Seattle have put negotiations between the ILWU and PMA on hold, with the delay potentially extending a final labor agreement into 2023 – or possibly longer. The delay impacts 22,000 unionized dock and warehouse workers at 29 West Coast ports.

  • The ILWU has accused port operator SSA Marine, Inc. and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) of misrepresenting which union can perform “cold ironing” work – the process of attaching a ship in port to shore power.
  • The dispute has now gone before the National Labor Relations Board, with the ILWU claiming that SSA and the IAM are in violation of its collective bargaining agreement with the PMA.
  • The NLRB is expected to hold hearings on the issue in early November.

On November 2, three terminals at the Port of Oakland shut down for the day shift due to a worker walk out. The terminals, all of which service international goods, were back in operation at 6pm, the start of the night shift.

  • The walk-out was conducted by the local chapter, ILWU Local 34, and not part of a larger union-wide action.
  • The shutdown stemmed from a contract dispute at the port.
  • In a statement, the PMA described Local 34’s actions as “counterproductive.”

The Big Picture

The negotiations between the ILWU and PMA began in May. Both sides have agreed to not discuss the ongoing talks publicly, although reports are they reached a tentative agreement on healthcare and benefits in July.

However, the ILWU’s focus has shifted from the labor negotiations to the dispute in Seattle. The Journal of Commerce reports that with the NLRB’s hearing and appeals process, industry observers do not expect the ILWU and PMA to reach an agreement until 2023 at the earliest.

The local dispute in Seattle exposes larger factors at play in the ILWU/PMA negotiations.

  • The ILWU believes that the port operators have not lived up to a 2008 commitment to support it in conflicts with other unions. The jurisdictional dispute commitment is cited as a factor in the ILWU’s earlier support of increased automation at the Port of Los Angeles.
  • The ILWU is not under pressure to rush the labor negotiations from its membership. Working hours are up this year. Through the first week of October, working hours were up 4% from 2021, despite imports from Asia slipping 1.7% during that period.