ILWU rally to press employers to resolve chassis M&R issue

Thousands of supporters of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are expected to attend a rally this evening near the Port of Los Angeles to urge waterfront employers to resolve what has become the most controversial issue of West Coast contract negotiations — jurisdiction over chassis maintenance and repair.

“I beg the PMA (Pacific Maritime Association) to come to a resolution by allowing the ILWU jurisdiction over the chassis issue and bring our economic engine back to efficient operation before we lose business permanently,” said Joe Buscaino, Los Angeles city councilman.

Buscaino organized the rally, and a concert, which will begin at 5 p.m. Pacific time in his San Pedro district. He was quoted in an ILWU release.

Although chassis M&R has been rumored to be a major sticking point in the negotiations since early January, Buscaino is the first person to publicly acknowledge that it has risen to the top of the union’s demands. Neither the ILWU nor the PMA will cite specific issues that have been discussed in the negotiations, which began on May 12, 2014.

PMA spokesman Steve Getzug on Thursday listed four general issues that must be resolved — wages, pensions, jurisdiction and work rules. In past negotiations, the PMA and ILWU have waited until all other issues were resolved before addressing wages and pensions. Those issues are normally settled relatively quickly.

Chassis maintenance and repair is an issue that rattles the nerves of longshore unions on both coasts. After owning, providing and maintaining chassis for more than 50 years, shipping lines in the U.S. trades have sold those assets to chassis-leasing companies and pools in order to escape the huge costs associated with chassis. Since shipping lines and terminal operators are members of the PMA, many, but not all of them, have a contractual relationship with the ILWU for M&R work.

The chassis-leasing companies are not PMA members and they are under no obligation to hire ILWU mechanics for M&R work. The union therefore fears the loss of hundreds of jobs, and has reportedly made three demands in the negotiations regarding chassis. The ILWU wants to inspect every chassis before it leaves the terminal. The ILWU wants jurisdiction over those terminals that have a contractual relationship with the International Association of Machinists, which does chassis M&R work at some terminals. The ILWU also wants jurisdiction over any off-dock sites operated by the chassis-leasing companies.

Employers are not budging on this issue because of the significant liability issues that are involved. For example, a handful of trucking companies own chassis and they perform all of the pre-trip inspections required of asset owners. Trucking executives say that if the PMA gives into the union’s demands, they will sue the ILWU, and the terminal operator, as soon as their chassis are stopped at the gate for inspection.

Furthermore, harbor truckers are already struggling with severe congestion problems at all West Coast ports. Requiring an inspection of every chassis by ILWU mechanics would make the congestion much worse, they said. Also, the IAM could be expected to file suit against the PMA and the ILWU if any attempt is made to break the IAM’s long-standing contracts with some terminal operators.

Meanwhile, the war of words continues as contract negotiations drag on and the ILWU continues to engage in work slowdowns and a refusal to dispatch sufficient skilled labor for key crane positions in the container yards. “Nearly three months ago, the ILWU began a coordinated series of slowdowns intended to pressure employers to make concessions at the bargaining table. Ever since, the PMA and its members have worked hard to counter the growing backlog of cargo that threatens to bring our ports to gridlock,” the employers’ organization said Thursday in a press release.

Buscaino stated in the ILWU release that recent steps taken by employers to eliminate vessel work at nights “is another step closer to a lockout. It’s the wrong time to take the type of actions that will hurt the hard-working residents that I represent,” he said.

Retailers and other shippers, in public statements through trade organizations or private e-mails to JOC.com, said shippers the past three months have devoted a tremendous amount of resources, at great expense, to manage truckers, terminals and carriers during this period of near-gridlock at the ports. Also, a refusal of some terminals to extend free time for equipment is causing demurrage costs to escalate, they say.