West Coast Labor Dispute Brings Crippling Delays to Seaports

By Erik Eckholm, February 12, 2015, New York Times

 

The container ships arrive here filled with appliances, toys and apparel, auto parts, computer components and untold other products from Asia — to head out to stores across America.

 

But a simmering labor dispute between the longshoremen’s union and shipowners has brought crippling delays here and to other West Coast seaports. And the slowdown escalated this week as owners said they would suspend the unloading of container and other cargo ships on Thursday, Monday and the weekend because of what they called “a strike with pay.”

 

The move follows a similar two-day limit on work last weekend that angered many port workers, who saw it as a ploy to punish them and increase pressure to settle on a new labor contract after nine months of negotiations, which continue with the aid of a federal mediator.

 

It seems certain to worsen the congestion at the West Coast ports, which together handle half the container traffic entering the United States, including at the vast Los Angeles-Long Beach complex here and ports in Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma.

 

Manufacturers and farmers who rely on timely and predictable trans-Pacific trade fear even more serious disruptions.

 

“The continued intransigence by labor and management to reach a new contract is unacceptable,” the National Retail Federation said in response to the latest report. “This stalemate is hurting American businesses, their employees and consumers.”

 

The federation called on the White House to push for a settlement.

 

Workers and management offer diametrically opposed explanations for the delays. The shipowners say that workers in some ports have significantly slowed their work in the last few months, and that the union local here in Southern California has hampered operations since November with new limits on who may operate cranes.

 

For several weeks, though, citing congestion in the yards, the owners have limited night-shift activities, with no unloading of ships, reducing the nighttime payroll.

 

“The employers are deliberately worsening the existing congestion crisis to gain the upper hand at the bargaining table,” Robert McEllrath, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said of the restricted unloading.

 

The owners must pay wage premiums for night shifts and time and a half for work on holidays and weekends — on a base rate of about $36 per hour for many seasoned longshoremen. Under the union contract, both Thursday (Lincoln’s Birthday) and Monday (Washington’s Birthday) are holidays.

 

Although the owners are suspending the unloading of ships on these two days as well as the weekend, they will allow terminals to continue with activities to move containers from their yards onto trucks and trains.

 

Last week, the owners, dominated by huge Chinese, Danish, Taiwanese and other companies, made public what they called a generous contract offer. On Wednesday, the Pacific Maritime Association, which is negotiating on behalf of the owners, said the longshoremen’s union had responded to that offer “with demands they knew we could not meet” — in particular a demand for a unilateral right to fire arbitrators when the contract ends.

The statement added, “What they’re doing amounts to a strike with pay, and we will reduce the extent to which we pay premium rates for such a strike.”

 

On Thursday, 14 container ships stood at anchor outside the conjoined ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Newly arrived ships have been waiting a week or two each before they can enter a terminal where looming hammerhead cranes will heft their cargoes onto shore.

 

Until last fall, container ships, which have carefully scripted schedules, virtually never had to anchor offshore at this harbor, said Capt. J. Kip Louttit, executive director of The Maritime Exchange, a private group that monitors ship movements here. The five-mile-wide harbor takes in 33 percent of the nation’s containerized imports. With unloading activities suspended, he said, the number waiting for a berth will climb.

 

The businesses that depend on Pacific trade for parts, products or sales are starting to feel the pinch. California citrus growers have lost $500 million in export business since November because containers now sit for an intolerable 10 days at the pier before being loaded, according to California Citrus Mutual, a trade association in Exeter, Calif.

 

When the owners, in a surprise move, temporarily suspended the unloading of ships last weekend, they said they did so because they were tired of paying overtime wages for sluggish work and because they had to focus on clearing out a backlog of containers in overflowing yards.

 

The union, in turn, hired a small plane and distributed aerial photographs showing empty tracts in the purportedly clogged yards.

 

“They are trying to create a situation to focus pain on longshoremen,” Richard Montez, a certified crane operator, said when he heard about the latest cutbacks. “They just don’t want to pay overtime dollars.”

 

”Instead of trying to ease the situation and get back to the norm, they’re causing more grief,” he said. “I have a family. I want to work.”

 

In the case of the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, the owners say the November decision by the union local to stop some 500 experienced, but uncertified, yard-crane operators from filling that linchpin role is to blame for the delays. The union says it made the decision for safety reasons, while the owners call it an indirect slowdown.

 

“There are not enough crane operators, period, to work continuously as we have in the past,” James C. McKenna, president and chief negotiator of the maritime association, said on Tuesday. On a typical day, the association says, the union provides far fewer operators than employers want, constricting all operations.

 

In one of many clashing narratives, union leaders deny this, saying that they have men and women qualified to meet any work demands, and that many certified crane operators are not even working full time.

 

“There’s no logical reason not to be working seven days a week around the clock,” said Bobby Olvera Jr., president of I.L.W.U. Local 13 here, which has 2,000 members.

 

The owners, Mr. McKenna said, had agreed to raise the base hourly wage for senior skilled workers, now $35.68, to $40.68 over five years, a 3 percent annual increase, with many of them also receiving considerable overtime and shift premiums. The owners would also continue to provide a no co-pay health plan and generous pensions.

 

The union has declined to discuss the negotiations.

 

Mr. McKenna has warned darkly of an “imminent collapse” of port operations, causing wide havoc and driving more shippers to other routes.

 

The union calls that a threat of a lockout, which occurred in 2002, prompting federal intervention under the Taft-Hartley Act. But the union, which insists that the parties are near agreement, has made no plans for a strike, which last happened in 1971.

 

Mr. McKenna said he was not forecasting a lockout but a system becoming so gridlocked that owners would have to suspend operations.

 

“A lockout is a last resort, nobody wins,” he said. “But at some point in time this thing will grind itself to a stop, and I wouldn’t take anything off the table.”

 

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