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ILWU Dockworkers Can Honor Clerks’ Pickets, Arbitrator Rules

The West Coast arbitrator who adjudicates labor disputes involving the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and waterfront employers on Wednesday ruled dockworkers in Los Angeles-Long Beach would not violate their contract if they honor a picket line established by office clerical workers in Southern California.

The ruling could result in the shutdown of container terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach if the Office Clerical Unit of ILWU Local 63, which has been working without a contract for almost two years, decides to picket the nation’s largest port complex.

OCU President John Fageaux, however, said his goal and the goal of his members is to resume negotiations with employers and “keep cargo flowing through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.”

About 600 office workers for shipping lines and terminal operators in Los Angeles-Long Beach are members of the OCU.

The OCU is affiliated with the ILWU dockworkers union, but the clerical unit has a separate contract. The OCU actually negotiates individual contracts with 14 marine terminal operators in Los Angeles-Long Beach. The terminals, in turn, have hired attorney Stephen Berry to represent them in contract negotiations.

Negotiations for a new contract began in April 2010 and have been held sporadically over the past two years.

Wednesday’s ruling involved a job action by the OCU in December 2011 to erect picket lines at two terminals.

Members of the dockworkers union refused to cross the picket lines, and their employer, the Pacific Maritime Association, asked the local arbitrator, David Miller, to determine if the ILWU dockworkers could honor the picket lines legally.

Miller ruled the OCU did not have a legal picket line, and ordered the dockworkers to return to their jobs, which they did that day.

Under the ILWU contract, a ruling by a local arbitrator can be appealed to the coast arbitrator, who has final jurisdiction. The OCU lodged the appeal last December, and on Wednesday, Coast Arbitrator Sam Kagel overruled Miller and said the OCU picket was legal and ILWU dockworkers can honor such pickets.

This is potentially explosive because the OCU could erect pickets at a number of terminals and effectively shut them down.

Fageaux, however, said he is prepared to return to the bargaining table immediately. “I hope Steve (Berry) asks us to resume negotiations,” he said.

Berry said he opened the door to the OCU to resume negotiations in December 2011, but “they haven’t come through the door.”

While multiple contract issues are at stake, the primary one involves technology. Berry said the OCU wants to roll back the right of employers to utilize productivity-enhancing technology, a right they achieved in previous contract negotiations after giving the OCU generous pension benefits.

Fageaux interprets the issue as employers using technology to outsource OCU jobs to nonunion workers in remote locations. He said the OCU has proof that some employers have done just that.

Berry said the current wage of $40.50 an hour, plus benefits, makes the OCU the highest compensated office workers in the United States. Fageaux said the OCU’s current contract proposal calls for a wage increase of less than 1 percent.

West Coast employers and dockworkers are concerned about what happens in the OCU negotiations because they see this year as a golden opportunity to regain some of the cargo lost to East and Gulf Coast ports in recent years. The contract between the International Longshoremen’s Association and employers on those coasts will expire on Sept. 30. Some cargo interests have said they will divert cargo to the West Coast if the ILA contract negotiations on the East Coast become heated.

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