Port of Los Angeles TraPac container terminal

LOS ANGELES — The union representing West Coast dockworkers today voted in favor of beginning talks early with employers on possibly extending the current labor contract in a key move that could help avoid the widespread disruption that befell businesses beginning in late 2014.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents some 20,000 dockworkers, began meetings Wednesday to consider extending the contract with the Pacific Maritime Association. The contract is set to expire in 2019. The PMA negotiates labor agreements with the ILWU on behalf of shippers and terminal operators.

The gathering in San Francisco included more than 100 delegates representing 30 West Coast ports who agreed by majority vote to begin talks with employers.

“The caucus made a tough decision under current circumstances amid a wide range of concerns and opposing views on how to respond to PMA’s request,” ILWU International president Robert McEllrath said in a statement. “This is a directive to go and have discussions with the PMA and report back to the membership, and we’ll do just that, with the well-being of the rank and file, our communities and the nation in mind.”

A PMA spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.

The decision follows calls from retailers and other businesses that were impacted by the slowdown at the ports that followed the June 2014 contract expiration and went on until early 2015 when labor and employers came to a new agreement. The labor dispute caused cargo congestion and forced diversions.

Industry sent a letter urging the two sides in March to begin talks early on either a contract extension or new contract to avoid a similar disruption when the current contract expires. That was followed up with a second letter Monday in which industry groups, including the National Retail Federation and California Retailers Association, called for changes to the old ways of negotiating that “stresses early and continuous dialogue,” including “a pledge by both parties to ensure there are no disruptions to cargo movement during negotiations.”

The National Retail Federation applauded the move in hopes of “providing some semblance of predictability for folks,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy.
Retailers certainly haven’t forgotten the impacts of the labor dispute as they plan out their supply chains, he said, adding “[The disruption’s] still in people’s minds. It’s not something they’re going to forget.”