March 29, 2020

Port Strike Averted After Partial Deal With Dockworkers Union

The mediator said the two sides had agreed to extend the existing contract by 30 days, to Jan. 28, to give them time to try to reach an agreement on the remaining issues, including what the companies say are antiquated work rules. Late Friday, the two sides issued a new announcement, saying they had agreed to extend the contract an additional week, to Feb. 6, creating a new potential strike deadline.

The partial agreement means that the union, the International Longshoremen’s Association, will not carry out its threat to have 14,500 dockworkers go on strike this Sunday at 14 ports along the East and Gulf Coasts.

In a statement on Friday, George H. Cohen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, said the two sides had reached an agreement in principle on a particularly contentious issue, known as container royalty payments.

The shipping companies share those payments with union members for each ton of cargo handled.

The union had for months denounced the companies’ proposal to freeze those payments for current longshoremen and eliminate them for future employees. No details about the agreement were disclosed.

“What I can report is that the agreement on this important subject represents a major positive step toward achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement,” Mr. Cohen said. “While some significant issues remain, I am cautiously optimistic that they can be resolved in the 30-day extension period.”

After the talks broke off on Dec. 18, Mr. Cohen persuaded the two sides to return this week for a last-minute round of bargaining. They have been negotiating on and off since March.

The United States Maritime Alliance, a group of shipping companies and terminal owners, said it paid $211 million in container royalties to the dockworkers last year, averaging $15,500 for each eligible union member.

James A. Capo, the alliance’s chairman, said the royalty payments amounted to $10 an hour on top of what he said were already generous wages. “This issue seems to have dwarfed anything else,” Mr. Capo said in an interview this week.

But in the days before the strike deadline, Harold J. Daggett, the union’s president, said, “We have repeatedly asked them to leave this item alone.”

The maritime alliance, known as USMX, said the longshoremen earned $124,000 a year on average in wages and benefits, including the royalty payments. Union officials said those figures were exaggerated and put average annual wages at $75,000 before benefits, for what they described as dangerous jobs moving heavy cargo. Under the current contract, most longshoremen earn $32 an hour.

The container payments were created in the 1960s to compensate the longshoremen because many were losing their jobs as seaports embraced automation and the use of standardized, 40-foot-long containers to ship goods.

Largely as a result of those trends, the number of longshoremen employed in the Port of New York and New Jersey, the busiest East Coast port, has dropped to 3,500 from 35,000 in the 1960s.

The shipping companies view the royalty payments as a relic of decades past, intended for longshoremen who worked in the 1960s and 1970s. But the union still sees the payments as a core part of wages and as an important way to share productivity gains with members. The payments come to $4.85 a ton, the union said.

As the strike deadline approached, Mr. Daggett said, “USMX seems intent on gutting a provision of our master contract that I.L.A. members fought and sacrificed for years to achieve.”

Representatives of the maritime alliance and shipping companies declined to discuss the agreement on the royalty payments or other aspects of the talks, saying that Mr. Cohen had urged the two sides not to talk to the news media.

Matthew Shay, president of the National Retail Federation, applauded the announcement but said a contract extension did not provide the level of certainty that retailers and other industries were looking for to ensure that their goods would continue to pass through the ports. “We welcome today’s news that a contract extension has been reached,” he said in a statement. “However, we continue to urge both parties to remain at the negotiating table until a long-term contract agreement is finalized.”

Mr. Shay’s federation and more than 100 other business groups wrote to President Obama last week, urging him to invoke his emergency powers under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act to prevent a strike. Labor experts said Mr. Obama would have been caught between fears that a strike would damage the already-fragile economy and worries that blocking it would anger allies in the labor movement.

In addition to reaching a master contract for the 14 ports, the two sides need to negotiate individual agreements for the ports, many of which involve work rules that the shipping companies are eager to change, calling them inefficient and costly.

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Scandal Widens Over French Weight-Loss Drug Mediator

PARIS — In 33 years on pharmacy shelves here, the diabetes drug Mediator was prescribed to an estimated five million French patients, many of them diabetics, many others hoping simply to lose weight. When French authorities ordered the drug off the market in 2009, alerted to possible cardiovascular risks, there were 300,000 active prescriptions.

Mediator and its enigmatic French manufacturer, Laboratoires Servier, a privately held company with a troubled past, find themselves at the center of France’s largest public-health scandal in at least a decade. Health officials estimate that as many as 2,000 people died, with thousands more hospitalized, victims of cardiac valve damage and pulmonary hypertension apparently linked to the drug.

Politicians and the press have pilloried Servier, charging that it concealed the dangers of Mediator for decades and insisting that the company has a wider history of disregarding health concerns about its products. Many have noted that two Servier weight-loss products, both closely related to Mediator, were at the center of the fen-phen scandal of the late 1990s in the United States.

In France, government investigators have accused Servier of licensing Mediator as a diabetes drug to avoid scrutiny, but urging doctors to prescribe the pills as a diet aid to bolster sales — a practice that greatly expanded the pool of those potentially harmed by the drug. Magistrates are investigating the company on charges of consumer fraud and manslaughter, and a public prosecutor has charged Servier with defrauding the French health care system. Trials are expected next year.

There are broader implications, as well. Drug makers have long viewed France’s pharmaceutical oversight apparatus as being relatively permissive, in particular as compared with the United States Food and Drug Administration, which industry and some patient groups criticize as overly cautious. French political leaders say that the Mediator scandal has exposed the failings of the country’s regulatory system, which they have described as rife with conflicts of interest and marked by a distinct apathy toward questions of public health.

The head of the French regulatory body, known by its acronym Afssaps, resigned this year, and French senators approved a package of reforms in October.

“We want there to be a ‘before’ and ‘after’ as regards Mediator in our country,” said Health Minister Xavier Bertrand, addressing the Senate.

Servier says it did nothing wrong and has insisted that the discovery of the dangers of the drug, also known as benfluorex, depended in part upon recent advances in echocardiography.

“I don’t see at what point Mediator could have been caught sooner,” said Lucy Vincent, a spokeswoman for Servier.

The withdrawal of Mediator from the market in 2009 — it was then available in France, Luxembourg and Portugal — caused little stir. Only the following year, with the publication of a book titled “Mediator 150 mg: How Many Dead?” did the news media and government officials take serious note.

“I realized they were withdrawing the drug on the sly,” said the book’s author, Dr. Irène Frachon, a pulmonologist. Servier and the health authorities made little effort to alert former patients, she said, like “a car manufacturer who sees there’s a defect in the brakes of its car, and who corrects the defect in its production line but doesn’t warn the people who have the car.”

In 2007, Dr. Frachon was among the first to identify the apparent risks of Mediator. Her book prompted lawsuits, public outcry and a government inquiry.

In January 2011, the interministerial commission leading the inquiry charged that Servier had deceived health authorities and patients in order to keep Mediator on the market.

But in their report, investigators also wrote that health officials had ignored a series of warning signs beginning a decade before. They additionally found that regulatory decisions taken by the Afssaps, the drug licensing agency, were in fact a “co-production,” reached in “cooperation” with drug makers.

At the Afssaps, voting members of the approval committee have long served simultaneously as consultants or employees of the pharmaceutical firms they are meant to regulate, officials acknowledge. And while members are expected to declare conflicts of interest, there are no penalties for not doing so. Consultants or employees from various companies, including Servier, remain active participants even now, according to Ms. Vincent, the Servier spokeswoman.

In America Food and Drug Administration restrictions on conflicts of interest are more rigorous, French and American health officials say. Failure to report a conflict of interest is a crime.

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