By John Gillie, April 30, 2013, The News Tribune
A key Port of Tacoma container terminal was shut down Tuesday morning when a group of retired longshore union workers began picketing the facility on Port of Tacoma Road in a dispute over medical insurance.
Some three dozen trucks were lined up along Port of Tacoma Road and in a nearby holding lot at midday Tuesday awaiting the terminal’s reopening.
Active longshore union workers turned back after encountering the picket lines. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 23 provides workers who operate the container cranes, gatehouses and container carriers at the terminal.
The Washington United Terminal is the Puget Sound home of the Grand Alliance, a four-shipping-line consortium that moved from the Port of Seattle last year to the Port of Tacoma.
According to a leaflet being distributed by the picketers, they began their picketing to protest the failure of the Pacific Maritime Association to pay medical bills they and their family members have incurred since their retirement.
The Pacific Maritime Association represents shipping lines, terminal operators and other waterfront employers in contracts with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
“PMA employers are taking away medical insurance from ILWU pensioners, their surviving spouses and children,” said the retiree group, the Pacific Coast Pensioners Association.
“Medical claims are being denied or reimbursements delayed unfairly,” the group said in its printed statement. “The problem is getting worse by the day.”
The PMA issued a formal “no comment” regarding the picketing and the retirees’ accusations.
Port spokeswoman Tara Mattina said an arbitrator had been called in to attempt to resolve the dispute. The picketers acknowledged that they were scheduled to meet with PMA and union representatives and an arbitrator.
The port itself is not directly involved with the dispute. It leases the terminal to a third-party terminal operator. Nonetheless, several port police officers were monitoring the picketing from cars parked near the terminal gate Tuesday.
But the 10 or so pickets declined to discuss their dispute or why they chose to shut down the terminal instead referring to the printed handout.
“As the independent organization for all ILWU retirees, the Pacific Coast Pensioners Association says we will not let this stand without a fight,” the handout declared. “We pensioners have earned medical coverage from our lifetime work for the PMA employers. We retired with PMA’s commitment that we would have our medical bills paid fully and timely by the industry health plan,” the group said.
The picketers said some retirees are now being pursued by collection agencies to pay medical bills that PMA employers should be paying.
“This is causing our retirees, spouses and widows great fear and grief, pushing some into poverty,” the handout said.
One ship, the Hyundai Shanghai, was calling at the terminal Tuesday.
The terminal on the Blair Waterway serves the Grand Alliance, a consortium of four containership lines that share transpacific capacity. Those four shipping lines, OOCL, NYK, Zim and Hapag-Lloyd have helped raise Tacoma’s container business by more than 25 percent this year.
The port has encountered an unusual number of work interruptions in the last several weeks. Two of those were caused by the deaths of two longshore workers on the docks. One was killed in an accident at Pierce County Terminal while maintaining a container crane. The other died, apparently of a heart attack, while working at the port’s APM Terminal. Longshore union members traditionally halt operations after one of their fellow union members die while working.