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‘Tone it Down and Stop All the Rhetoric,’ Union Boss Says of Port Contract Talks

International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) President Willie Adams looked to soothe concerns over the outcome of the upcoming dockworker contract negotiations when he told the head of the Port of Los Angeles last week a deal would get done.

Adams made the comments during a videotaped interview with Port of Los Angeles executive director Gene Seroka that also included ILWU coast committeeman Frank Ponce De Leon.

The ILWU represents some 29,000 members and negotiates labor contracts for the workers with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents the employers.

Contract season has given rise to speculation of what the implications to retailers and other shippers could be if the two sides fail to hammer out a new contract by the July 1 expiration.

“Right now, nobody’s talking about 300 ships sitting in Shanghai. Nobody’s talking about the 200 ships in Hong Kong or the 150 ships in Singapore. We’re talking about worldwide trade,” Adams told Seroka when asked about the concerns around a new contract. “Nobody’s talking about all the money that these foreign companies have made. Everybody ought to just tone it down and stop all the rhetoric. We have been negotiating, the ILWU and our employers, since the 1930[s]. There’s adults on both sides of the table, and it’s called the process.”

Adams’ comments in part referenced the logjam that continues to grow as China’s zero-Covid policy and lockdown orders that seem to now be jumping from city to city are causing vessel and yard congestion at ports, prompting blank sailings among a number of ocean carriers. The transportation system on land in parts of the country is not much better with proof of negative nucleic acid test results required for truckers, prompting further slowdowns.

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National Retail Federation (NRF) president and CEO Mathew Shay wrote to the leadership of ILWU and PMA in February, urging the two to begin talks early.

“NRF’s members are continuing to adjust to the ongoing supply chain disruptions,” Shay said in his letter. “Any kind of additional disruptions at the ports would add further costly delays to our members’ supply chains and likely add to inflation concerns and further threaten the economic recovery.”

Some retailers and other companies put contingency plans in place months ago, ahead of the upcoming West Coast dockworker contract talks, not wanting to chance the possibility of potentially being caught up in a new supply chain snafu.

“Retailers are already planning now for potential disruption for the contract negotiations, so this isn’t something that they’re going to wait on until July 1, when the contract expires,” NRF vice president of supply chain and customs policy Jonathan Gold told Sourcing Journal. “They’re already planning a couple different mitigation strategies.”

That includes bringing product in earlier than usual, similar to strategies employed last year, and the other is looking at the East and Gulf Coast ports, Gold said.

“The ongoing challenge, though, is with all the continued congestion, there are limitations on where they can kind of go because the capacity just isn’t there,” Gold said.

Labor, in the meantime, remains confident about the upcoming talks.

“We will get an agreement and it takes both sides. And, right now we’re getting ready. The other side [the employers], they’re doing what they have to do, but sometime in May, we’re going to sit down,” Adams told Seroka. “We’re going to get an agreement and I wish instead of people writing things and saying that you’re going to throw the baby out with the bathwater or this or that’s going to happen, they ought to be talking about the positive things out of Covid. All the good things that have come out of this.”

Dockworkers continued to work during the pandemic and have been played a critical role in helping realize record-setting months for imports at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Adams pointed out.

The Port of Los Angeles said it processed 958,674 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in March for another record-setting month and the facility’s best ever first quarter. The neighboring Port of Long Beach said it ended its busiest March ever, moving 863,156 TEUs.

ILWU’s Ponce De Leon added in the same conversation with Seroka the fact that workers and employers were able to come to agreements to get through Covid speaks to their ability to get through the upcoming negotiation process.

“We sat down and collectively bargained agreements to get through Covid,” Ponce De Leon said. “We sat down and bargained to keep moving, to keep people safe to make sure our ports were opened.”