By John Gillie and Melissa Santos, December 23, 2014, The News Tribune
Container terminal operators have canceled night shifts beginning last weekend at the Port of Tacoma and elsewhere even as shippers suffer from delayed shipments and port congestion.
Dean McGrath, president of International Longshore Union Local 23, said the union was prepared to send hundreds of longshore workers to the docks to load and unload vessels, but terminal operators at Tacoma’s major container facilities canceled their calls for night shift workers.
The shift cancellations are the latest development in a productivity crisis that began in late October and persists this week. That slowdown in loading and unloading ships in 29 West Coast ports has drawn loud complaints from importers and exporters alike who say their goods are marooned on the docks.
A spokesman for the shipping lines and terminal operators said the halt to nighttime work is designed to help alleviate congestion.
“Terminal operators in the Ports of Seattle and Tacoma have begun to consolidate from two shifts of work to one effective immediately in order to better deal with significantly reduced capacity caused by the continued slowdowns by ILWU workers,” said Wade Gates, a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association.
“By consolidating operations to a daytime shift only, the terminals seek to receive a full complement of workers from the union in order to process as many containers as possible, even as the ILWU slowdowns continue. The move also means containers are unloaded from ships into the yard, as unloaded containers are processed out of the yard to their final destinations, thereby reducing congestion,” he claimed.
McGrath said all of the longshore gangs the local has been dispatching were fully staffed.
The local leader said global shipping lines and alliances in recent months have triggered strikes and disputes in major ports throughout the world in order to drive down their costs and assume more control of their terminals.
“They’d rather engage in self-sabotage than enter into some meaningful talks to get the problems solved,” he said.
Global shipping lines are concentrating their power by merging and forming cargo-sharing alliances, said the union leader. Those cargo-sharing alliances have made terminal work more complicated and complex as workers must sort containers to and from multiple shipping lines at single terminals.
Those shipping lines have also sold to leasing companies the chassis on which containers are carried over the road. Those leasing companies, said McGrath, in some instances have withheld chassis from cargo haulers to create an artificial shortage and drive up chassis rental costs.
Meanwhile, rising prosperity in the economy has raised the container numbers crossing the docks, McGrath said. Simultaneously rail capacity to carry those containers to and from the inland population centers is being strained by new rail business in the form of oil, coal and grain trains destined to the West Coast.
Just Monday, a Washington state senator said he wants to see if the Legislature can help alleviate an apparent slowdown of goods moving through those ports.
Sen. Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said that members of the longshore union seem to be stalling shipments around the busy holiday season to help negotiate favorable contract terms with their employers.
But McGrath said shipping lines and their allied terminal operators have deliberately created a crisis to bring public pressure on the longshore union to settle for an unfavorable and unfair contract. The union and the Pacific Maritime Association have been without a contract since July 1. In seven months of talks, the two sides apparently have made little progress in reaching a new accord.
Baumgartner said Monday that Washington’s Christmas tree growers in particular have been hurt by the cargo slowdown, citing in a news release how “containers earmarked for shipment to Asia languished for weeks at the Port of Tacoma.”
“The slowdown has put Christmas in the crosshairs,” Baumgartner said in a news release. “It looks like the longshore union played hardball with the ports to win an advantage at the bargaining table. But it went too far when it targeted the people who grow our Christmas trees.”
Baumgartner, the incoming chair of the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee, said he will hold a hearing early next year to examine the causes of the port slowdown and see if state agencies can help get goods moving again.