LOS ANGELES – Agreement on pension benefits is the decisive issue now confronting the West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and their employers, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), as both parties headed to the negotiation table Nov. 13 after a one-week recess.

According to ILWU Communications Director Steve Stallone, the pension issue will either make or break the tentative agreement on technology that was reached Nov. 1. The technology issue has been one of the front-burner battle points since negotiations began May 13. The tentative agreement covered jurisdiction issues, which the union reported marks a victory for them.

Discussions are now focused on the union demand that profits made by the shipping firms as a result of the introduction of new technology should be shared by longshore workers in the way of increased pension benefits.

“Workers are giving up a lot to advance the industry and deserve something in exchange,” Stallone told the World. This follows the same basic principle established by the ILWU in the 1961 Mechanization and Modernization agreement (M&M) under the leadership of Harry Bridges. That historic agreement brought the expansive use of cargo containers but also provided strict provisions to protect union jurisdiction, jobs and worker benefits tied to the introduction of technology.

While it appears that the tentative technology accord will provide every currently working longshore clerk with a guaranteed job for life, it is estimated that anywhere from 400 to 600 clerks jobs will be eliminated in the future with the entrance of computer systems, scanners and other technology.

In addition to that, the ILWU estimates that the PMA will save at least $200 million a year with the new technology. It is on that basis that the union is demanding that pension benefits should increase so that longshore workers can retire “in dignity.”

While the PMA has put on the negotiations table an offer of a 25 percent increase in pensions, this does not meet the needs of retiring workers. Estimates are that this offer would bring the maximum annual retirement benefit to about $50,000.

While this may be good from the point of view of non union workers, The Los Angeles Times reported this week that a major pension consulting firm told them that “the ILWU pension plan, even with the proposed 25 percent increase, falls at the low end of the normal range for union workers in similar situations.”

According to the Times, the pension industry norm is that retirement funds, combined with Social Security payments, should equal about 70 percent of annual wages.

For many longshore workers, the $50,000 a year hardly meets up to that criteria. The consultant told the Times the union proposal “is more than mediocre, but nowhere near the greed scale.”

According to Stallone, like the M&M agreement, the union proposal would assure retiring workers that they can live at a standard that meets the lifetime contribution they gave to the industry.

The ILWU also explains that a decent pension contributes to the surrounding port communities. “Retirees with a reasonable income to live on enhance the community without the need to draw on much needed social services, which others can utilize,” said Stallone. “A strong pension plan makes for a better quality of life for the overall community.”

The Journal of Commerce revealed splits within the PMA. Some shipping firms adamantly oppose the tentative technology agreement and the union pension plan proposals. Others appear to want to come to accord with the union.

ILWU members must vote on the entire contract package before any tentative agreement becomes final.

The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com

PDF version of ‘ILWU ties pension demands to technology’