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Labor Secretary Downplays ‘Sticky Issues’ in West Coast Talks: Report

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh doesn’t appear to be concerned over the progress of the West Coast dockworker contract negotiations, despite a dispute over work in Seattle that’s before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). 

Walsh confirmed to Bloomberg Friday the contract talks continue. 

“There will obviously be sticky issues that will pop up every now and then, but nothing that is making me concerned that I’ll have to have a 20-hour meeting in my office about it,” he told the outlet. 

The meeting was a reference to the railroad strike that was temporarily averted last month. Walsh helped the railroads and remaining unions hammer out an 11th-hour tentative agreement that helped stave off a disruption to the nation’s rail system. 

That contract issue is ultimately still unresolved with a dozen rail unions’ memberships now required to vote on whether or not they accept the tentative deals their leaders struck with employers. Four unions have so far ratified their contracts. 

The contract negotiations for the 22,000 dockworkers, represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), with employers, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), have continued well past the July 1 expiration of the previous agreement. 

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Both sides have continued to reiterate their commitment to getting a deal done with no disruption to cargo movement and have so far come to a tentative agreement on healthcare benefits

However, an issue that cropped up in the Pacific Northwest more recently raised the possibility of an interruption to the process. 

In September, the International Association of Machinists (IAM) filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) against the ILWU regarding a dispute over which union was contractually entitled to the work of cold ironing ships in Seattle. 

IAM accused the ILWU of violations of the National Labor Relations Act, including coercion, picketing and strike actions and causing employer retaliation, according to the case docket. SSA Marine is not charged in the case but involved as the employer in the dispute. 

ILWU alleges SSA “colluded” with IAM to bring charges to the NLRB “during a critical time in negotiations.”

The union said the case “forces the ILWU to focus its attention, otherwise spent in bargaining, on defending the preservation of ILWU work in Seattle.” 

ILWU international president Willie Adams went on to say the NLRB’s intervention is being used as an “escape hatch” to avoid a contractual obligation. 

“What we need right now is for the employers to figure out how to police the multi-employer group so that they will honor the agreements we made at the bargaining table,” Adams said. “We also need federal agencies like the NLRB to honor the ILWU-PMA agreement and to recognize the instability it creates in this vital industry when it allows itself to be used as a way for the employers to escape their collectively bargained commitments to the ILWU.” 

Reports had surfaced more recently of worker slowdowns in the Pacific Northwest due to the work dispute. However, even with the disagreement, Walsh told Bloomberg last week negotiations “are still moving forward,” further characterizing talks as “fluid.”