West Coast longshore workers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are continuing talks with the employers’ Pacific Maritime Association for a new agreement, following the July 1 expiration of their contract.

“We’re making progress and moving in the right direction,” ILWU International President Bob McEllrath told the union’s Longshore Caucus last week. But, he said, “it’s going to take a while longer.”

In mid-June tentative agreement was reached on maintaining current health and welfare benefits.

“That’s important considering how many negotiations around the country have floundered around the issue of health benefits,” ILWU communications director Craig Merrilees said in a June 21 telephone interview.

Overall, Merrilees said, “it’s a bit frustrating, because we’re now about three weeks past the contract expiration. But progress is being made and the talks are moving along. Hopefully it won’t be too much longer before an agreement is reached.”

Meanwhile, the PMA complained that workers at the Los Angeles/Long Beach complex were engaging in a slowdown, including coordinated coffee breaks, that they claimed cut productivity as much as 20 to 30 percent during one day shift last week.

The ILWU points out that “unit breaks,” when workers take their breaks together, are legal under the expired contract.

Merrilees downplayed the breaks’ impact, but called the actions “a modest response to the worker frustration that has been building because the contract hasn’t been settled.”

He added, “The workers are taking coffee breaks, but the ports are open, the cargo is moving, and the companies are making money, so it’s hard to understand why they’d be grousing so much about a little coffee break.”

Though Merrilees wouldn’t comment on remaining issues in the negotiations, worker safety on the job is known to be high on the list. The union says a dozen workers have died on the docks during the 2002-2008 contract, and points out that longshore workers experience more deaths per 100,000 workers than even police and firefighters.

Parallel with the overall negotiations, longshore locals are talking with the employers’ association to reach “local supplemental agreements” on issues at their ports. Earlier this month longshore workers at Tacoma protested when they said a PMA representative came to talks unprepared and unable to respond. But management there quickly agreed to continue negotiating the local pact. Merrilees said he had not heard of other significant conflicts around the local agreements.

mbechtel @pww.org