Negotiations continue with West Coast workers

Marvin Lazaro, July 8, 2002

Home textiles suppliers and retailers that are anxiously monitoring the situation between West Coast dockworkers and the shipping companies continue to hold out hope for a timely resolution.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) have met numerous times over the last several weeks to negotiate, but no agreement has been reached over the extremely sensitive issues of job security and benefits.

The organizations continue to conduct face-to-face meetings but the closest they have come to agreeing was to temporarily extend by 24 hours the existing contract, which expired at 5 p.m. on July 1. Robin Lanier, executive director of the Washington-based West Coast Waterfront Coalition, a watchdog group, said that as long as both parties continue to meet and extend the contract on a day-by-day basis, the possibility of a work slowdown, strike or lockout is remote.

At the heart of the matter lies the the PMA's desire to modernize the various ports on the West Coast, which include Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland in California; Portland, OR; and Seattle and Tacoma in Washington. According to the PMA estimates, the ports collectively lose over $1 billion annually in inefficiencies. Modernization, the PMA contends, would improve productivity but would lead to some of the workers' jobs becoming obsolete. While the ILWU is not against making the ports more productive, it has expressed extremely strong objections to any of its 10,500 members losing jobs as a result and the possibility that the union would not share in the windfall of more cargo passing through.

"They're talking and that's good," Lanier said, noting both organizations met again on July 2 and were scheduled to meet throughout the long holiday weekend. "I think the pressure from public officials, the press and everyone else has really made both sides buck up and say, 'We really have to sit down and work this out.'"

That pressure includes letters to both organizations from Senators Dianne Feinstein, D-CA, and Barbara Boxer, D-CA, individual letters from representatives Norman Dicks, D-WA, George Miller, D-CA, a collective letter from George Nethercutt, D-WA, Jennifer Dunn, D-WA, and Doc Hastings, D-WA, and a collective letter from the entire California Congressional delegation.

Letters from the National Retail Federation (NRF) and the International Mass Retail Association (IMRA) have also been sent but to a higher authority, President George W. Bush, urging him and his administration to use their influence to avoid any disruption. The NRF's Tracy Mullin, president and ceo, characterized a slowdown as having "grave consequences for American retailers." Bob Verdisco, president of IMRA, said, "For the mass retail industry, the stakes could not be higher."

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