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West Coast Dockworker Talks Reach Common Ground on One Key Point

Progress may be inching along in the closely watched labor negotiations for some 22,000 West Coast dockworkers with the first major status update since the former contract’s expiration.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports in the U.S., and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the group negotiating on behalf of terminal operators and shipping lines, said in a joint statement Tuesday that they’ve reached a tentative agreement on healthcare-related matters.

Details were not provided outside of the two groups saying health benefits would be contingent on the rest of the contract issues being worked out and agreed upon.

The ILWU and PMA said “maintenance of health benefits is an important part of the contract being negotiated” between the employers and workers.

“The parties have agreed not to discuss the terms of this tentative agreement as negotiations continue,” the statement also said.

Wages, safety and automation are also likely part of the talks and it’s unclear where the two sides are at on those matters.

The previous contract had workers earning nearly $195,000 annually on average, according to the PMA.

Implementation of more technology to automate certain processes is supported by the employers that argue automation allows for greater efficiencies and helps meet sustainability targets. That would be at odds with a report released last month, commissioned by the ILWU, that said automation leads to lost hours and lower productivity.

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Dockworkers have continued to work past the July 1 expiration of the former contract as it was expected negotiations would run past the deadline. Both sides had confirmed at that time goods would continue to move through the ports, despite a new agreement not yet being struck.

The subject of wages has been a major sticking point in various labor and employer collective bargaining agreements currently in play. Union groups across transportation modes and in different parts of the world have pointed to employer profits that soared in many cases during the pandemic, when logistics staff continued to work. Unions are now calling on employers to adjust contract pay accordingly.

Wages and the disparity between what the unions are asking and where employers are at is also a subject of debate in the closely watched rail labor negotiations, which have been going on for the past two-and-a-half years.

Agreement on a new contract for some 115,000 workers failed to be reached in mediation. A Presidential Emergency Board (PEB) enacted by President Biden earlier this month to stave off the possibility of a strike or lockout is now holding hearings through Thursday to investigate the disagreement.

Union Pacific chair, president and CEO Lance Fritz described the two sides to Yahoo Finance last week as being “pretty far apart right now” on wages.

Once the hearings conclude, the PEB will make its recommendations to employers and the dozen unions involved. The two groups will then have 30 days to consider the proposed settlement and continue negotiations.

If a deal cannot be reached then, the possibility of a strike or lockout would arise again. However, Congress has the authority to step in and stop that from happening by proposing an agreement.