In an effort to end the nine-month-long contract dispute with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) announced Feb. 4 that they had made an “all-in” contract offer that would significantly increase compensation to the members of the ILWU.
“Our members have shown tremendous restraint in the face of ILWU slowdowns that have cut productivity by as much as 30, 40, even 50%,” PMA President Jim McKenna stated in a press release. “This offer puts us all-in as we seek to wrap up these contract talks and return our ports to normal operations.” McKenna told Associated Press that he wants to avoid a coast-wide port shutdown, but employers won’t keep paying workers who aren’t moving cargo at their normal rate if the ports become much more gridlocked.
The Wall Street Journal reported that on Feb. 5, the ILWU circulated photos of empty yards at the ports. ILWU President Robert McEllrath said in a statement accompanying the photos, “PMA is leaving ships at sea and claiming there’s no space on the docks, but there are acres of asphalt just waiting for the containers on those ships, and hundreds of longshore workers ready to unload them.”
Late Friday, Feb. 6, the PMA announced that weekend vessel loading and unloading operations would be temporarily suspended over the weekend at all 29 West Coast ports. They said that yard, rail and gate operations were continuing at terminal operators’ discretion.
The PMA said that vessel operations are scheduled to resume Monday, Feb. 9. “Yard operations — that is, moving processed containers for truck and rail delivery to customers — will continue at terminal operators’ discretion, although the ILWU continues to limit operations by withholding the needed crane operators or operating slowly.”
In a press release received by DTN from the Port of Long Beach, Port of Long Beach Chief Executive Jon Slangerup issued the following statement on the labor issue: “The Port of Long Beach isn’t a direct party to the negotiations, but we again urge the PMA and ILWU to quickly resolve their differences so all the West Coast ports can focus on clearing the growing backlog of cargo.”
“The PMA and ILWU are vital partners in an industry that here in Southern California employs more than 500,000 workers — in and outside the ports.
“Business has already moved to other ports due to the congestion. It’s critical that we stop the hemorrhaging. This region simply can’t afford to lose jobs because of cargo heading elsewhere.”
The Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka told the Wall Street Journal that containers are stacked about six high at the Port of Los Angeles. “If a labor deal is reached and other solutions are implemented, it could take about eight weeks to get the port back to normal,” he said.
In the meantime, refrigerated beef and pork, poultry, apples, frozen and dehydrated potato products and frozen vegetables wait for shipment in the hope there is no spoilage. The delays to shipping those products and more are costing industries hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales, according to news reports. A container shipper in the Upper Midwest told DTN that fresh produce waiting for shipment late last year did spoil and had to be destroyed.
Shippers who move containers of ag products from the Midwest are frustrated and have told DTN that their businesses are at risk of losing key customers because of the ongoing dispute. One shipper told DTN that he is angry and feels helpless that there is nothing he can do but watch and wait and lose customers.
The Seattle Times reported that stakeholders in port operations have been pleading for President Barack Obama to step in since port slowdowns first started in late October 2014. After Friday’s announcement, the Times said that “politicians and associations across the country urged for the president to step in.”
The administration’s only statement on the issue came at the end of November 2014 when the president said he was confident both sides could reach a deal “through the time-tested process of collective bargaining.”
The PMA noted that despite four weeks of help by a federal mediator, the parties have not yet been able to “bridge the considerable gaps between them.” On top of that, the union recently added significant new demands, with the most significant being that the union wants to change the decades-long process for selecting arbitrators. The PMA said the union is “trying to change the rules on the waterfront in their favor, giving them the ability to unilaterally remove arbitrators who rule against them.”
McKenna, speaking at a news conference said that without the arbitration process in place, the ILWU would call the shots and employers would be powerless to stop the slowdowns. “Some might wonder how the union was able to take such unilateral actions to cripple the West Coast ports. The short answer is, because they can,” he said.