Matson strike possible


POSTED: Thursday, June 25, 2009

Matson Navigation Co.'s top unionized officers could strike tomorrow—putting a crimp in Hawaii's delicate supply chain—if they do not reach accord during scheduled talks with the shipping company today.

;[Preview]  Local Matson Workers Discuss New Contract

If a new contract is not reached by the deadline, unions representing Matson Master Mates and Pilots say a strike is possible.

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The Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P), the American Radio Association (ARA) and the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association (MEBA) said they have not been able to reach agreement on a four-year contract with Matson since formal negotiations began around May.

Members of these unions range from ship's captain to other marine engine and deck officers. Their current contract was set to expire June 15, but a 10-day extension was reached, with talks set to resume at 10 a.m. today in Los Angeles.

If a new contract or significant progress is not made by midnight, when the extension expires, some 1,000 to 1,500 officers who are eligible to work for Matson sailing out of Hawaii and the West Coast could strike, disrupting Matson's shipping in Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle and Honolulu.

In addition, while the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 142, which represents the dockworkers who drive the trucks and load the ships inside the terminal, is not involved in this battle, they could choose to avoid crossing the picket lines, said Sark Wetzel, who sails as a second mate for Matson.

“;In the past, we have had solidarity with the ILWU,”; Wetzel said.

The ILWU has declined to comment until Matson and its unionized officers have left the bargaining table.

Jeff Hull, a spokesman for Matson, declined to disclose specifics of the negotiations, but said that there is still time to reach an agreement.

“;We will continue to negotiate in good faith,”; he said.

This is the first time that MM&P, ARA and MEBA have threatened to strike; however, at this time last year the Sailors' Union of the Pacific, the Seafarers International Union-Marine Cooks, and the Marine Firemen, Oilers, Watertenders and Wipers Association voted to strike if they did not reach agreement with Matson. At the 11th hour, Matson reached a five-year agreement with these unions, Hull said.

The threat of a strike is often used as part of the negotiation process for a union contract; but in the past, even the mere inkling of a shipping disruption in Hawaii has caused imports like toilet paper, rice and Spam to fly off store aisles.

Memories of critical shortages in Hawaii following the 100-day dock strike in 1971 still crop up in conversation and trigger wild buying sprees.

“;Without Matson ships running, Hawaii would be virtually cut off from the food and other necessities of life—everything but oil, and you can't eat oil,”; said Charles Khim, a Honolulu labor attorney for MM&P, whose members held a picket meeting followed by a press conference yesterday. They also distributed leaflets outside the headquarters of Matson's parent company, Alexander & Baldwin Inc.

Union members are willing to strike to preserve safety, maintain jobs and attain wage parity, Khim said. Ship and environmental safety are at stake if Matson eliminates the highly technical master radio electronics officers billet, he said.

Such a move would cut about 25 officer jobs, said Carl Young, ARA national secretary/treasurer.

“;Matson would try to reassign the duties, but so many are so high-tech and specialized that no one on the ship can do them,”; Young said.

The unions also want Matson to agree not to outsource union jobs and to eliminate a two-tier wage system, said Don Marcus, MM&P's West Coast vice president. Unionized officers crewing Matson's older ships make as much as 30 percent more than their counterparts on the company's newer ships, Marcus said.

“;Matson promised as soon as things got better economically that they would eliminate the two-tier system,”; Khim said. “;From that time, Matson has made over $500 million in profit.”;