Labor strife leads to shipping slowdowns along the West Coast

By Charlie Morasch, Land Line contributing writer | 11/10/2014

A slowdown of cargo movement at several major West Coast ports has affected holiday retail goods and sparked some to request help from the White House.

Between May and July, negotiations for a new West Coast-wide contract for port workers represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union started and stopped repeatedly, eventually missing a late July deadline.

Since last week, the ILWU has been accused of refusing to dispatch workers to move containers in shipping terminals at the twin Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach – adding to freight slowdowns already experienced at the Port of Tacoma and other West Coast ports.

In a news release, the Pacific Maritime Association said many of the ILWU members not working have “significant experience operating yard cranes in the terminal, placing cargo containers on trucks and rail cars for delivery to customers.”

“We’ve used the same dispatch procedures for qualified crane operators since 1999,” PMA spokesman Wade Gates said, according to the release. “After 15 years, the ILWU leadership has unilaterally decided to change the rules for hundreds of qualified workers who are dispatched daily to help operate terminals at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.”

The ILWU responded sharply, calling the PMA’s assertion a “bold-faced lie.” ILWU said it never agreed to continue normal operations until reaching a new labor agreement for West Coast port workers.

“No such agreement was ever made, nor could it be made given the parties’ historic disagreement that has been the subject of arbitrations for decades,” ILWU said in a statement posted to its website.

ILWU Spokesman Craig Merrilees blamed the port traffic slowdown on a change in the chassis delivery system at the ports, a shortage of truck drivers to move containers at the ports, and a shortage of rail car capacity.

Earlier this year, truck drivers and the port acknowledged shipping slowdowns and long truck wait times, though inefficient shipping chassis systems were blamed at the time. Holiday season freight is reportedly mostly finished for large shippers, although smaller toy and clothing retailers may be affected by the freight slowdown on the West Coast.

According to The Associated Press, 10 ships were anchored early last week off the coast near Los Angeles and Long Beach waiting for other backlogged ships to unload. By Thursday, that number had increased to 14.

The National Retail Federation, the world’s largest retail trade association, joined manufacturers and others in calling for the use of a federal mediator to bring both sides to a resolution. The National Retail Federation pointed to a recent increase in rhetoric and tensions surrounding the negotiations.

“The threat of a West Coast port shutdown is creating high levels of uncertainty in a fragile economic climate,” the National Retail Federation said in a letter to President Obama. “The sudden change in tone is alarming and suggests that a full shutdown of every West Coast port may be imminent. The impact this would have on jobs, downstream consumers, and the business operation of exporters, importers, retailers, transportation providers, manufacturers, and other stakeholders would be catastrophic.”

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