Tentative Labor Deal Reached to Open Key San Juan Pier
SAN JUAN – The commonwealth government announced recently that a preliminary agreement was reached between stevedore company Luis Ayala Colón Sucrs. Inc. (LAC) and Local 1740 of the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) to put an end to the strike that disrupted international cargo delivery, causing shortages of products and raw materials sold and used by industries on the island.
Pier operations were scheduled to resume Thursday morning.
La Fortaleza Chief of Staff Noelia García Bardales said that after the parties and their attorneys met with Puerto Rico Labor and Human Resources Department (PRLHD) Secretary Carlos J. Rivera Santiago at the governor’s mansion, a tentative agreement was reached to settle the main point of contention involving the use of a software to register cargo.
The deal involves LAC hiring a unionized checker to be in charge of using a tablet, that operated with the Navis software, to enter container and cargo data; while forklift operators would only have to confirm that they completed their job by just pressing the corresponding button in the device.
“On Thursday, there will be an onsite inspection with the Labor secretary to review the operation strategy to ensure that there is safety and efficiency, which is the concern of each of the parties. But operations will continue as they were before the strike started,” García said.
“The union and the company reached an agreement that operators use the tablets; we are opening a position for checker, as requested by the union. We have a 45-day plan that we understand the parties will execute (the plan) without any problem,” said Hernán Ayala, vice president of operations at LAC.
Nevertheless, Rivera said a Labor Department mediator would continue to work with the parties to hash out the economic clauses of the collective bargaining agreement between the ILA-affiliated Port Workers Union and LAC. The union agreed to give the process 45 days to be completed, with extensions if needed, he said.
“The Labor Department will continue assisting the parties in the different controversies. We will not go into detail on that because it will be under a process of mediation and analysis,” the Labor secretary said. “In those days, we want to deal calmly with the different controversies.”
Rivera said he does not expect that the union will go on strike again, given that the use of technology was the most significant point of contention.
“It is highly likely that before the 45 days [a final deal will be reached]. In those 45 days we have an agreement that there will be no type of [work stoppage]. Due to the dialogue, good spirit of the parties and the good faith of both, we understand that this event has been passed and we do not expect a repeat of this,” he said.
Overdue Unloading, Shipping
With operations resuming Thursday morning, Ayala said that workers will face the task of unloading 4,500 containers and loading 5,000 containers for shipment. He said that 13 ships are behind schedule because they were diverted to the Caucedo port in the Dominican Republic and Panama, and will take between 15 hours and two days to arrive in San Juan. “There should be sufficient time to unload the cargo [in waiting],” Ayala said. “Much of the arriving cargo is stored at the pier 10, 14 or 15 days, sometimes 30, until it is picked up. Some clients were affected while others were not,” he added.
ILA President Carlos Sánchez said that a 45-day cooling off period was set to also work out the chinks in the new digital cargo registering system implemented a year and a half ago.
“We reached an agreement with the employer for the good of the people of Puerto Rico and continue with negotiations to find the best alternatives for everyone,” the union leader said, stressing that there have been disagreements regarding the function of workers using the tablets.
“We have a new system, which both parties will analyze, and we will see all the details of the system to undertake a complete and efficient system for the workers,” Sánchez said. “We never agreed with the system… We have agreed to the functions of each one. Each party conceded to reach an agreement. They agreed with the checker, and we agreed with the button.”
The local syndicate’s members walked off the job on July 17, disrupting the flow of cargo handled by the shipping agent. The LAC-operated pear receives 23% of total cargo arriving in Puerto Rico, but 80 percent of international freight from destinations other than the U.S. mainland.
The Puerto Rico Ports Authority had filed a lawsuit in San Juan Superior Court against the parties, claiming that the conflict had cost the agency some $400,000 in dock nd harbor fees. García said that the government would not withdraw the lawsuit until the parties reach a final labor agreement. She acknowledged that the commonwealth was considering putting into operation a government-owned pier with two onsite cranes as an alternative.
“This is an analysis that must be done panoramically, and other parallel variables must be analyzed,” the chief of staff said, stressing that offer and demand issues must be studies. “The Ports Authority will analyze the unused piers and two cranes there to determine their best use.”
Similarly, the commonwealth will continue to send documentation on the LAC and ILA labor talks to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and the National Labor Relations Board until a final deal is reached, García said. Earlier this week, Gov. Pierluisi urged the federal government to intervene in the controversy after no progress had been reached last week in talks between the parties and the commonwealth Labor Department.
Puerto Rico Chamber of Commerce President Luis Gierbolini had issued a press release earlier in the day stating that it had requested to intervene in the labor conflict, which had led to cutting “the flow of essential merchandise for manufacturing companies, retail sales, health and for all Puerto Ricans.”
Last week, Manuel Cidre Miranda, secretary of the Economic Development & Commerce Department (DDEC by its Spanish acronym), said that the government did not have alternative piers to receive non-American-flagged ships with a cargo of specialized raw materials for pharmaceutical, medical devices and ocular sciences companies. The LAC-operated pier also ships out the merchandise from Puerto Rico to non-American destinations, including agricultural supplies from Puerto Rican industries.
“Unfortunately, Hurricane Maria destroyed the cranes in Ponce, which are being repaired. Mayagüez does not have available cranes. The only entry point is the port of San Juan. This situation should make us reevaluate,” Cidre said. “The San Juan piers have cranes operated by Tote, Puerto Rico Terminal, Luis Ayala Colón, and Crowley. The union entanglement between the four operations makes it very difficult to move elsewhere.
Ponce Mayor Luis M. Irizarry reportedly is requesting from the commonwealth government that funds be allocated to repair one of the three cranes in the Las Americas Port in that southern city so that it can be an alternative entry point for essential goods. The port was built to be a major transshipment point in the Caribbean. Still, wrangling between the commonwealth government and the municipality has shot down such aspirations, as transshipment ports in Panama and the Dominican Republic dominate the region in such cargo.
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