Employers warn West Coast ports ‘approaching complete gridlock’

Despite presence of federal mediator ‘no further agreements have been reached.’

Excerpt from American Shipper  |  BY CHRIS DUPIN, ERIC KULISCH | JANUARY 13, 2015

negotiation-sign_5The Pacific Maritime Association, which is representing management in contract talks with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said Monday that “more than two months of ILWU-staged slowdowns… have methodically reduced terminal productivity at the five largest ports on the West Coast.”

“Operations are approaching complete gridlock,” PMA added.

“Since late October 2014, the ILWU has crippled what were fully productive terminals in the Pacific Northwest and Oakland, and exacerbated a difficult congestion issue at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach by intentionally withholding dozens of essential skilled workers each shift for the past 10 weeks,” the association said.

“The ILWU’s action in Southern California goes against 15 years of precedent and targets precisely the skilled workers who are most essential to clearing congested terminals. By withholding an average of 75 yard crane drivers each day, the ILWU has stalled the movement of tens of thousands of containers,” PMA estimated. “Since Nov. 3, the union has reduced these yard crane operator positions in Southern California by 67 percent.”

The ILWU said last week the shortage of yard crane operators (these are the operators of cranes that are used to move containers within terminals or on or off drayage trucks as opposed to the ship-to-shore cranes used to load and discharge containers from vessels) “is a consequence of PMA’s refusal — before the commencement of negotiations — to adequately train.”

The union said the PMA “regularly rejected the union’s overtures for such training and also refused to register new workers to perform critical UTR and basic work. PMA’s pre-negotiation position has caught up with them logistically and now serves to partially contribute to the institutional congestion problems being experienced in Los Angeles and Long Beach.” (UTRs or utility tractor rigs are the trucks used to move containers within container terminals.)

“To blame the union is blatantly inaccurate and is being done only to divert responsibility from wrong choices and a vacuum of planning by the PMA and its terminal operators,” the ILWU said.  ILWU said that in contract negotiations Monday afternoon, officials from the PMA “told a federal mediator and longshore negotiators that West Coast ports have reached a point where there is little space available for additional import containers arriving on the docks – and no space for export and empty containers returning to the docks.”

“The PMA made it clear in the negotiating session that they were not blaming union workers for the primary causes of the congestion crisis, explaining that the lack of space for returning empty and export containers was exacerbating the existing chassis shortage – because the export-bound containers are a key source of desperately needed chassis that have become the number one choke-point, ever since shipping lines recently stopped providing a chassis for each container arriving to West Coast ports.

“After explaining how the lack of dock space for containers and shortages of chassis were crippling the ports, the PMA announced an illogical plan to eliminate night-shifts at many ports. In addition to cutting shifts at major container ports, the PMA cutbacks would also apply to bulk and break-bulk operations – for no apparent reason other than as a cynical tactic to generate anxiety among workers.

“Cancelling night shifts and reducing bulk operations will do nothing to ease the congestion crisis. The PMA appears to be abusing public ports and putting the economy at risk in a self-serving attempt to gain the upper hand at the bargaining table, and create the appearance of a crisis in order to score points with politicians in Washington,” the ILWU said.

“Longshore workers are ready, willing and able to clear the backlog created by the industry’s poor decisions,” said ILWU President Bob McEllrath. “The employer is making nonsensical moves like cutting back on shifts at a critical time, creating gridlock in a cynical attempt to turn public opinion against workers. This creates an incendiary atmosphere during negotiations and does nothing to get us closer to an agreement.”

After months of calls by shipper groups, PMA asked for a federal mediator to get involved in the contract negotiations on Dec. 22, and the ILWU agreed to the move last week.  But PMA said yesterday “since the mediator joined the talks, no further agreements have been reached and ILWU work slowdowns have continued to the point where many terminals are in peril of complete gridlock.

PMA noted ILWU members are “among the highest paid union workers in America, are receiving full wages and benefits while stifling productivity and putting West Coast port terminals at the brink of full shutdown. To date, the ILWU and PMA have reached tentative agreements on health care and increases to pay guarantees. That tentative agreement provides fully employer-paid health care benefits valued at $35,000 per worker annually. PMA also has proposed pay increases and pension enhancements. There are no takeaways in the PMA proposal.”

“The PMA has a sense of urgency to resolve these contract talks and get our ports moving again,” said PMA spokesperson Steve Getzug. “Unfortunately, it appears the union’s motivation is to continue slowdowns in an attempt to gain leverage in the bargaining. The ILWU slowdowns and the resulting operational environment are no longer sustainable.”

PMA said it has “alerted the local port authorities to the deteriorating situation on the docks.”

National Retail Federation Vice President Jonathan Gold said, “The war of words between International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Pacific Maritime Association on port congestion continues to concern the supply chain community. The two sides continue to strain the shipping community – importers and exporters – and threaten the very competitiveness of the West Coast ports.  We remain hopeful that federal mediation will help relieve some of built-up pressure and help the two parties toward an amiable contract without any disruption or delay.”

BNSF Railway officials said they are very concerned about the dysfunction at West Coast ports, Executive Chairman Matthew Rose told American Shipper Sunday in brief comments following a presentation at a transportation conference in Washington.

In Southern California, slow productivity at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach has forced the railroad to stage trains up the mainline in San Bernadino and up to Barstow to wait for open track in terminals, he said.

“We’ve got an artificial constraint put into the supply chain. The ports are probably running at 60 to 75 percent of efficiency,” Rose said.