Contract negotiations at ports going poorly as container traffic drops 20 percent

Sarah Aitchison, December 18, 2014, Puget Sound Business Journal

The Pacific Maritime Association, the terminal representatives at ports along the West Coast, released a statement Wednesday negating any suggestions that contract negotiations with the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union are going well.

Meanwhile, the ports of Tacoma and Seattle released productivity numbers showing a precipitous drop in the number of containers that have moved through since negotiations began getting tense in early November.

The two parties began negotiating a renewed labor contract in May. The contract expired July 1, and the ILWU has been working without a contract since.

“Statements and rumors that our negotiation are ‘close’ to a final contract are not true. Even after seven months of negotiations, we remain far apart on several issues, and the union slowdowns continue to disrupt the movement of cargo through the ports,” said Wade Gates, spokesman for the PMA. “Business is being lost, and we are concerned that the damage is permanent and shippers will be fearful to put their trust in the West Coast ports going forward.”

Talks may be slow, but there has been progress, said Craig Merrilees, communications director of the ILWU.

Progress isn’t the only thing that is slow in regards to the ports. The first numbers showing drops in port efficiency month-to-month were released this week. Total container volume was the lowest for the year in November.

The count from October to November was not the biggest drop in port productivity for the year, but total container volume at the Port of Seattle was 20 percent lower than it was in November 2013.

Concern over port slowdowns began on Halloween, when the PMA claimed ILWU workers at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma were intentionally slowing down their work as a negotiating tactic.

Until now, evidence that the ports really are slower than before Oct. 31 has been come from businesses that use the ports, but it has been primarily anecdotal.

The union, which acknowledges that ports along the West Coast are operating slower than normal, blame major changes in the industry that are forcing them to work dangerously and less efficiently.

Container numbers released by the Port of Tacoma Thursday, show container volumes were 8 percent lower in the month of November, compared to the year before.

The port blames the drop on stalled negotiations between the PMA and ILWU.

“We continue to urge the PMA and ILWU to resolve contract issues,” said the release.

At the Port of Seattle, the average total volume of containers moved both in and out of the port per month before Nov. 1 of this year was 119,863. In November, the count was 100,676 total container volumes moved through the ports.

The PMA and ILWU negotiators met over the weekend, Wednesday and today. The ILWU submitted updated contract proposals Monday morning and is waiting for the PMA to respond, said Merrilees.

“There’s nothing wrong with dispelling false rumors of a tentative agreement,” Merrilees said. “The port congestion crisis was caused by bad industry decisions that pre-date the slowdown allegations. The key drivers of congestion are industry-based changes in operations and business models, including chassis outsourcing, which have paralyzed ports and made the docks much more dangerous for workers.”

Despite the longstanding port congestion problems, Merrilees said, both sides remain committed to reaching a fair agreement as soon as possible.

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