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Negotiations between port and union stalled, headed for arbitration

on June 13, 2012

The Port of Oakland is facing “significant financial challenges” according to Pamela Calloway, the president of the Port Board of Directors of the fifth busiest container port in the country, and as a result the port has asked the union for concessions in talks for a new contract. The union representing port workers who do maintenance, janitorial and security work at the port disagrees about the port’s financial health, and for the last year the two sides have negotiated but been unable to come to an agreement.

Talks between port officials and Service Employees International Union reached an impasse last week, and if an agreement can’t be agreed to in the next few months, according to an SEIU member assigned to negotiations, it could lead to the port imposing a new contract on union members and the union responding with a strike.

The previous agreement expired on June 30, 2011, and the two sides have been negotiating since on a new contract. According to a press release from the Port of Oakland, the two sides reached a tentative agreement that “protected salaries and benefits” of port workers in April. That agreement included maintaining current wages and benefits, including health coverage. But it was subsequently voted down by SEIU members by a total of 176-3, according to the SEIU member who is part of the negotiating team, but who wished not to be identified because he said the union hasn’t selected a spokesperson.

According to this SEIU member, the union rejected the tentative agreement because it includes a clause that forbids strikes and takes away members’ rights to file grievances over violations of Oakland’s civil service rules. The contract would also change overtime rules so some workers wouldn’t earn more compensation when they work longer than their usual shift.

“These management demands are not driven by financial necessity as the port management portrays,” the SEIU member wrote in an e-mail. “The port is doing quite well under the existing labor agreement.”

Sam Singer of Singer and Associates, a PR firm contracted to speak on behalf of the Port of Oakland, called these claims a “spin on the actual terms of the contract.”

“There is a ‘no strike’ clause during the term of the contract, which is very common,” Singer wrote in an e-mail. “The rights of employees to grieve to the civil service board are preserved under the port personnel rules. Workers can earn overtime after working their entire shift or exceeding their hours for the week.”

According to a document produced by the union and forwarded to SEIU members, the port’s “last, best and final offer” for a new union contract would save the port $2.6 million annually, which works out to $11,818 per member, per year. According to the document, the port is projected to end the 2012 fiscal year, which ends on June 30, with a surplus of $40.3 million, $6.8 million more than projected.

That $6.8 million is more than enough to cover the increased medical costs, pension costs and a 5 percent cost of living adjustment that the union says would make up a “fair contract for the next three years,” the document states.

The port leadership disagrees. Singer wrote in an e-mail that the port does not “know where SEIU gets this figure from, but here’s the reality: The port’s operating revenues will exceed operating expenses, generating positive operating income. However, over the next three years, our operating expenses are projected to grow at a faster rate than operating revenues.”

“The SEIU really needs to take a look at how difficult the economy is, and how difficult it is for the Port of Oakland to have a sustainable economic plan,” Singer said in a phone interview.

An arbitrator will be selected next to review the final offer, and if a deal can’t be worked out, “the next step is the imposition of the contract on the SEIU,” Singer said.

“The Board of the Port of Oakland would hope that through the mediation and arbitration that union leadership will see that it’s a very fair contract,” Singer said, “one that preserves jobs, preserves benefits for its members during a difficult economic time.”

The SEIU member said the union’s “hope” is a contract can be agreed to during arbitration. If not, the union could strike.

“They’re free, at the end of this process, to say this is their last, best and final offer and they’re imposing this,” he said. “And we’re free to strike. If push comes to shove and that’s what they’re looking for, I think it’s a big mistake. We’re quite capable of doing that.”

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