With labor deal, West Coast ports tackle cargo backlog

By  Justin Pritchard, February 22, 2015, The Associated Press

Labor-management peace is returning to West Coast seaports — and with it, eventually, the free flow of cargo across docks that handle about one-quarter of U.S. international trade.

 

On Friday night, negotiators for dockworkers and their employers reached a tentative, five-year contract deal. The agreement’s immediate effect is to restore normal operations at 29 Pacific ports where dozens of huge ships are waiting to unload a shopper’s delight of imported goods. U.S. exports, particularly from farms, are also waiting to reach Asian markets.

 

 

Seattle and Tacoma terminal operators hired union workers for Saturday’s night shift to unload international container ships for the first time since mid-December, said Chris Romischer, International Longshore Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 52 president.

 

It will take several months for ports such as Los Angeles and Long Beach — the nation’s largest — to clear the backlog, which swelled as the two sides quarreled over a new deal.

 

All told, West Coast ports handle about $1 trillion worth of cargo annually. While the ports never shut down fully, the problems in the supply chain were acute.

 

“We are still struggling to secure vessel space for the next two months,” said Blaine Calaway of Calaway Trading, which ships grains, forages and hay products through Seattle and Tacoma ports destined for Asia, mainly as animal feed.

 

“A lot of bookings that were supposed to ship the first part of February are not booked until mid-March.”

 

Calaway has containers of hay that have been waiting to ship for the last two and a half months while his company was able to ship only half its normal product, he said.

 

While an agreement is the first step, Calaway said he is prepared for many more months of congestion before the ports return to normal productivity.

 

With 11 ships anchored in Puget Sound on Saturday, the ports of Tacoma and Seattle anticipate their rebound will be quicker than in California, as it was after the 2002 lockout, Port of Seattle spokesman Peter McGraw said.

 

 

“It’s hard to know exactly how long it might take to work through the backlog, but we will do everything we can to support our customers,” Port of Tacoma spokeswoman Tara Mattina said after the announcement.

 

On Saturday, the leader of the Port of Los Angeles estimated that it would take three months “to get back a sense of normalcy.” There are about 30 ships just off the coast and perhaps two dozen more hanging beyond the horizon, executive director Gene Seroka said.

 

The tentative contract agreement reached in San Francisco must be approved by the 13,000-member ILWU’s rank and file, as well as the full Pacific Maritime Association of employers.

 

A vote by union members could come in April. It was not yet clear when employers might vote on the contract.

 

Neither side released details, but in a recent letter, maritime association President James McKenna outlined what he called employers’ “last, best and final” offer. It included maintenance of nearly no-cost health coverage, an $11,000 increase in the maximum pension benefit to $91,000, and a $1-per-hour wage increase over each of the five years.

 

Though dockworker wages vary by job and skill level, the average exceeds $50 per hour, according to the maritime association, which represents oceangoing shipping lines and the companies that load and unload cargo at port terminals.

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