Longshoreman spark May Day shutdown at many West Coast ports

By Charlie Morasch, Land Line staff writer | 5/1/2008

Several major U.S. ports along the West Coast were partially or fully closed for business Thursday, May 1, as part of an organized protest.

The May Day shutdown closed terminals at California ports in San Diego, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland and San Francisco. Ports in Seattle and Tacoma, WA, also closed. The shutdown had been planned by some labor organizations for weeks, and most ports were warned about the shut down.

News stories and labor organizations listed a host of reasons for the port shutdown, ranging from the International Longshore & Warehouse Union’s stance to end the war in Iraq to truck drivers’ frustrations with ever-rising diesel prices and calls for transparency in fuel surcharge agreements.

The Los Angeles Times noted that “all 29 ports” along the West Coast were shut down, while the Oakland Tribune reported that some protesters tried to stop trucks and convince them to shut down as well.

Brian Coddington spent Thursday at the Port of Seattle, where all container operations were shuttered.

Coddington is a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminal operators at most major ports along the West Coast. An arbitrator told longshoreman union officials this week that port workers would have to come to work Thursday.

Thursday’s shutdown “severely disappointed” terminal operators, Coddington said.

“This has a significant impact well beyond just the ports,” Coddington told Land Line. “Any stoppage at the ports works against millions of Americans whose jobs are tied directly or indirectly to the cargo.”

The shutdown was treated like a holiday in Los Angeles, said Arley Baker, spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles.

“Obviously when you have a situation where a terminal operator is opened for business but employees don’t show up and cargo isn’t moving across the docks, there is some economic impact,” Baker said.

“I can tell you that it’s something, in terms of the cargo, we’ll be able to mitigate and get back on track fairly quickly. The larger concern is the impression this gives to shippers and retailers who are looking for certainty in terms of their decisions on where they ship cargo.”

More than 10,000 containers are loaded and unloaded in West Coast ports every day, Coddington said, meaning Thursday’s eight-hour day shift could affect the U.S. economy by tens of millions of dollars.

“A protest at all West Coast ports would affect more than half of the nation’s waterborne trade,” read a statement issued by the Port of Long Beach.

One source familiar with fuel surcharge issues, who spoke to Land Line on the condition of anonymity, said East Coast drivers have continued protests for fuel surcharges, while the West Coast shutdowns were closely tied to longshoremen labor groups.

Truck drivers nationally, the source said, are supporting each other.

“With all this stuff going on, I think people are finally going to understand something’s wrong here,” the source said.

The International Longshore & Warehouse Union issued a statement regarding the port shutdown.

“Big foreign corporations that control global shipping aren’t loyal or accountable to any country,” Union President Bob McEllrath said. “For them it’s all about making money. But longshore workers are different. We’re loyal to America, and we won’t stand by while our country, our troops and our economy are destroyed by a war that’s bankrupting us to the tune of 3 trillion dollars. It’s time to stand up, and we’re doing our part today.”

In Georgia, trucks lined up outside the gates of the Port of Savannah to show support for port shutdowns throughout the West Coast.

Keith Liverman, OOIDA member from Rincon, GA, told Land Line that mainstream media attention has begun.

“We’re not shutting down, but we are showing support for the guys on the West Coast,” Liverman said.

Liverman said previous shutdowns in 1997 and 2003 lasted for weeks at a time, but were less organized than the Savannah driver’s April 3 shutdown.

Truckers in Georgia and nationally are better organized, and have clear goals to pursue transparency in jobs involving fuel surcharges.

“That was our goal – to get everybody’s attention,” Liverman said. “I think we succeeded.”

Others were less inspired.

“We certainly take it very seriously and are disappointed that membership chose not to show up today,” the Pacific Maritime Association’s Coddington said. “Our expectation is that this is a day-shift activity and the night shift will come to work as scheduled.”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer

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