In June, SHIFT reported that a labor dispute was brewing between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the group representing port employees. With just three days to go before the old contract expired, the two parties had yet to reach an agreement for a new labor contract.
The International Business Times reported that a significant factor preventing a successful negotiation was increased costs associated with Obamacare. Four months into the labor dispute, little has changed. The ILWU is still “fighting to keep its current health care benefits despite the estimated annual $190 million increase to their plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that neither side in the negotiations wants to absorb.”
The lagging labor dispute now threatens to impact the economies of California and Washington—the ports of Seattle, Tacoma, Los Angeles and Long Beach handle nearly 80 percent of all containerized cargo along the West Coast—as the ILWU has begun to retaliate. Last week, PMA accused ILWU of deliberately slowing down work and causing port traffic.
The ILWU has denied the accusations. One union official pointed to other possible factors contributing to increased port congestion. He then stated, “The best way to resolve the problem is to make sure the negotiations continue with a new sense of urgency… Workers are very frustrated and have been patient since the talks began this past spring.”
Despite the ILWU’s denials, the facts speak for themselves. Q13 Fox recently reported that “shipping containers are stacking up at the Port of Seattle and the Port of Tacoma.” Two weeks ago “port workers refused to work but just a few hours a day, causing a big backup at both ports. It’s so bad at the terminals in Tacoma that they are no longer accepting exports.”
Of particular concern are agricultural products that are sitting in warehouses for days while on route to international destinations. The slowdown has most impacted Washington`s $7.2 billion apple industry. According to Q13 Fox, a “record apple season is under way with 60,000 jobs on the line if the delay gets worse.” Projections indicate that “even a five-day port shutdown would cost the U.S. economy approximately $2 billion a day.”
A coalition of 100 industry associations have sent a “letter to President Barack Obama, governors of West Coast states and federal agencies pleading for federal intervention in the labor negotiations.” Back in 2002, the White House intervened to end a 10-day lockout after failed contract negotiations slowed port activity through the West Coast, severely impacting trade operations.
According to the Puget Sound Business Journal, Jay Inslee’s office emailed a statement essentially admitting that he will not do anything to help resolve the conflict. The email stated, “The governor is aware of the problem and closely following developments. Unfortunately, this is happening along the entire West Coast and we are caught in a much larger dispute we don’t control. The governor wants both sides to find a speedy and fair solution so Washington products can get to markets.”
Of course, few would think Inslee would intervene against the interests of labor to help Washington’s economy. After all, this summer Inslee wouldn’t even protect state employees from labor threats to allow agriculture exports at the Port of Vancouver.
The Obama administration—and federal agencies to whom the letter was addressed—have yet to issue a statement on the labor dispute or the possibility of labor mediation… or the threat Obamacare indirectly poses to the economy of the entire West Coast.
This will start happening all over the country as more and more union contracts come up for negotiations. Last year, the UFCW was informed by the grocery chains, that they would be dropping health insurance all together. I was personally sent a letter from my employer saying the same. It wasn’t until they found out that they were going to get a waiver from Obamacare for one year, did we end up settling our contract without a strike. Next time, we won’t be so lucky.