Port workers’ strike averted, for now

Published 12:12 am Saturday, December 29, 2012

A strike by dockworkers at East and Gulf Coast ports, including the Port of Hampton Roads, may have been averted, according to a news release from the nation’s top mediator.

The issue of container royalties — the major bone of contention in master contract negotiations — has “been agreed upon in principle by the parties,” Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Director George H. Cohen stated.

Industrial action has been brewing for several months, with the International Longshoremen’s Association, representing 14,500 dockworkers at more than a dozen ports, deadlocked in contract negotiations with the U.S. Maritime Alliance, whose membership includes 24 container carriers, including the world’s 10 largest.

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Carriers pay container royalties to dockworkers based on tonnages of freight handled. The payments, which reportedly won Virginia dockworkers $16,856.37 for the 2011-2012 contract year, are designed to compensate against loss of work in an industry where work fluctuates and which is becoming increasingly automated through technological advances.

From the alliance’s opposing perspective, however, royalties have increased to the point that they now constitute a de facto second income.

Cohen and Deputy Director for Mediation Services Scot Beckenbaugh helped the parties reach an agreement during a mediation session Thursday, the FMCS release stated.

“The container royalty payment issue has been agreed upon in principle by the parties, subject to achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement,” Cohen stated.

Another agreement further extends the current contract for 30 days, until Jan. 28, “during which time the parties shall negotiate all remaining outstanding Master Agreement issues,” with the FMCS to set the negotiation schedule after consulting with the parties.

Because of holidays, the contract was further extended to Feb. 6, according to a post by the Port of Virginia on Facebook.

The federal mediation agency said its commitment to confidentiality keeps it from detailing the royalty payment agreement. “What I can report is that the agreement on this important subject represents a major positive step toward achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement,” Cohen stated.

“While some significant issues remain in contention, I am cautiously optimistic that they can be resolved.”

ILA members taking to Facebook mostly praise the deadline extension. Commenting on union president Harold Daggett’s post declaring “major (ILA) gains on the Container Royalty issue,” Khari Boyd of the Norfolk branch, for example, proclaimed Daggett “a bull in the best way” — though he also requested to see the fine print.

Antonio Senatore commented: “I guess the fear of losing billions has finally set into these greedy corporations.”

Before the deal was announced, however, Mandy Lucas Smith wrote, “Don’t back down and give the usmx (sic) another extension! That would show that we are willing to give in.”

A strike, previously set to begin 12:01 a.m. Sunday and which Friday’s FMCS announcement fails to entirely quash, would have had a devastating impact on the national economy, according to groups representing retailers.

With many port-linked distribution and warehousing facilities, Suffolk would have been severely affected by any prolonged strike.