The union that represents 20,000 dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports is one step closer to ratifying the tentative deal it reached with shipping companies that ended a major labor conflict earlier this year.
That deal ended a dispute that caused major import and export delays at ports along the coast and hurt the businesses that rely on them, prompting the Obama administration to intervene.
Talks between the two sides went on for months, and the sticking points in the last few weeks did not center on traditional issues like wages and health care. The ILWU and the PMA had a tough time agreeing on such things as who maintains and repairs truck beds used to haul cargo to distribution warehouses.
The two sides have yet to release a copy of the contract to the public.
The 90 ILWU delegates that make up the Coast Longshore Caucus reviewed the five-year contract this week. According to a statement released by the union, 78 percent voted to back the proposal.
Copies of the contract will now be mailed to the union's members. The ILWU plans to hold discussions on it at local union meetings before a vote, with results expected May 22.
The shipping companies are expected to vote on the contract within the next month or so, said Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the PMA.
"This is an important endorsement of the tentative agreement reached between PMA and ILWU, and a critical step forward in protecting the competitive position of the West Coast ports," Getzug said.
The recommendation from the union prompted praise from the federal government's top labor official. In a statement, U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez called the vote an important step toward finalizing the agreement.
"I am optimistic that the rank-and-file membership will recognize the contract as a fair resolution, and will vote to approve the contract," said Perez, who traveled to San Francisco to help end the labor conflict.
Since the ILWU and the PMA reached a tentative deal less than two months ago, port congestion along the West Coast has eased considerably, Perez said.
In fact, the major backlog of cargo at the Port of Oakland cleared on Thursday, port officials said.
For the first time since January, vessels are no longer waiting in San Francisco Bay and outside the Golden Gate to approach the port, they said in a statement.
"When a ship comes to Oakland, it goes straight to berth," Port Maritime Director John Driscoll said. "No more delays: that's the message we're sending to our customers and the shipping lines that carry their cargo."