A machine stacks shipping containers.
An electric stacking crane at Pier J at the Port of Long Beach. Courtesy of the Port of Long Beach

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union announced Thursday a tentative agreement has been reached with the Pacific Maritime Association on some key issues, but negotiations are ongoing.

The ILWU represents more than 22,000 longshore workers at 29 West Coast ports, including the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach—two of the busiest ports in the nation. The ILWU has been negotiating with PMA, a group representing shippers and terminal operators, since May of last year.

The previous contract expired on July 1, 2022.

Shortly after the agreement expired, the union and the PMA announced a tentative agreement on terms for the maintenance of health benefits. In February, the organizations announced they remained hopeful of reaching a deal “soon.”

“The ILWU and PMA meet regularly in San Francisco to continue negotiating the collective bargaining agreement, and are committed to reaching an agreement,” the union said in a statement Thursday.

Both parties agreed not to disclose the terms of the tentative agreements as negotiations continue.

The negotiations continued without incident for about 10 months. In March, however, the PMA began accusing union members of taking work actions to put pressure on the association.

The association first accused ILWU Local 13 of weaponizing lunch breaks, with all workers taking them together rather than staggered, effectively shutting down terminal during the days’ three lunch hours. The union, for its part, stated workers were not being paid if they worked through their lunch, so they have opted to take them in full.

Earlier this month, 11 out of 13 terminals at the ports of Long Beach and LA were closed for a day as union members claimed they were attending a monthly meeting and then observing religious holidays. When asked why other meetings and holidays had not shut down terminals, union leaders did not respond.

Some have called the action a “wildcat strike”—a work stoppage not authorized by the union, which requires an official member vote.

Most recently, the PMA accused the union of delaying the standard dispatch process, which is jointly administered by PMA and the ILWU, and refused to allow PMA’s participation in the labor dispatch process.

PMA said the ILWU’s actions slowed the start of operations throughout the Southern California port complex and forced crucial cargo handling equipment to be taken out of operation at several key terminals.

PMA said in a Thursday statement that union actions continue to interrupt port operations.

“While significant progress has been achieved in coastwise contract negotiations, several key issues remain unresolved,” the organization said. “Meanwhile, work actions led by ILWU Local 13 at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach continued to disrupt some operations at key marine terminals today. The Union is deliberately conducting inspections that are not routine, unscheduled, and done in a way that disrupt terminal operations.”

The union, for its part, said in a Wednesday statement that ILWU members are continuing to work despite a drop in cargo volumes. Specifically, the statement argued that terminal operators fell behind on maintenance of cargo-handling equipment in recent years, which is now impacting ILWU members who must inspect the equipment and resolve any issues that arise.

“Terminal operators that have a clear shortage of mechanical personnel on staff, naturally have the longest list of shortcomings to address,” the statement said. “We hope to complete these inspections in a systematic and expeditious manner for the benefit of all our supply chain partners. Meanwhile, our members are continuing to move cargo with skill and efficiency.”

The contentious labor negotiations and work stoppages continue to place a cloud of uncertainty over West Coast ports, especially Long Beach and LA, which continue to lose market share to East and Gulf coast ports.

Paul Brashier, vice president of drayage and intermodal for ITS Logistics, a third-party logistics firm that offers nationwide transportation services such as trucking, stated Thursday that the recent work actions are the “opening salvo” in what will be tense negotiations in the coming months.

“This was the first major public display of how far both parties are apart and has moved the Pacific Region to a severe concern on the index,” he said.

“Shippers should avoid West Coast Ports for the next two months and add additional dray capacity immediately across North America,” the company stated.

Port officials, for their part, have stated they are in constant communication with the ILWU and PMA as well as federal, state and local officials to support a return to normal operations in the ports.

This story has been updated with comment from PMA and the ILWU. City News Service contributed to this report.

Long Beach cargo volumes dropped 30% last month compared to March 2022

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.