SAN FRANCISCO — An assembly of West Coast longshoremen has given union negotiators the power to call a strike vote, though no action is imminent since talks with shipping lines have been postponed until mid August.
The talks affect a contract that covers 29 major Pacific ports from San Diego to Seattle, which this year are projected to handle $300 billion worth of cargo.
About 80 rank-and-file members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union met here this week and unanimously rejected a contract proposal by shipping lines. The assembly spent Thursday preparing a response, which included extending the current contract until Aug. 13, the next time negotiators will meet.
In addition, the delegates took the proactive step of empowering union negotiators to call a strike vote. Usually, negotiators must request that authorization.
The message, union spokesman Steve Stallone said Friday, was that “something like a strike vote may be necessary and negotiators should be prepared to do it if they need to.”
It would take three to five weeks for the 10,500-member union to execute a mail-in strike vote, according to Stallone.
“They’re not interested in calling for it immediately, but they want to be able to do it if they need to,” he said. “We’re working under a better contract than they have on the table. We can just sit on this right now.”
The contract officially expired July 1. Both sides have renewed it on a stop-gap basis since to keep goods flowing along the West Coast waterfront, even as each started charging the other with bad-faith tactics.
The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents dozens of shipping lines at the table, greeted news of the delay with dismay.
“Delay will not bring us any closer to an agreement,” Joseph Miniace, chief executive officer of the association, said Friday in a written statement. “It will only cause uncertainty for our economy and for the millions of U.S. workers whose jobs depend on West Coast trade.”
“It is hard to imagine what could be more important to the members of the ILWU than getting back to the table and securing a new contract,” Miniace said.
In an interview, Miniace said he was less bothered by word of the strike authorization power, calling it “neither unusual nor unexpected.”
Miniace has said that a proposal he made Sunday, which over five years would have increased longshoremen’s overall compensation by 17 percent — was fair and reasonable.
Union delegates objected to the association’s proposals on health care and how to preserve union jobs as shipping lines introduce new technology to make the docks more efficient — but also some union jobs obsolete.
With Pacific Rim trade projected to double in the next decade, shipping lines complain West Coast ports won’t be able to keep up unless they catch up with their more automated Asian peers.
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