PMA vs. ILWU: Negotiations Jeapordized, Ports Congested

Published Nov 4, 2014 9:53 AM by The Maritime Executive

On Monday, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents over 70 multinational ocean carriers and maritime companies in contract negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), said that the ILWU has initiated orchestrated slowdowns at the Pacific Northwest ports of Seattle and Tacoma, severely impacting many of the largest terminals during the peak holiday shipping season.

In response, the ILWU states that the PMA’s media offensive is designed to smear the union and to deflect responsibility from a growing congestion problem that is plaguing major West Coast ports.

The ILWU-PMA contract expired on July 1, 2014. Since mid-May, the parties have met to negotiate a new agreement regularly. During this 6-month period, the union claims it has consistently come to the table in good faith despite PMA’s early pressure tactics, which include, among other things, secretly trying to shift away thousands of ocean container chassis traditionally handled and maintained by longshore workers and refusing to bargain a training program that properly trains longshore workers and prevents non-qualified workers from operating dangerous equipment.

Wade Gates, a spokesperson for the PMA, said: “Both parties agreed that normal operations at West Coast ports would continue until an agreement could be reached. Now, the ILWU has reneged on that agreement.”

The PMA has accused the ILWU of initially targeting select terminals in Tacoma on Friday, October 31, and expanded to more terminals in Tacoma and the Port of Seattle throughout the weekend. The slowdowns began within hours of the end of the latest negotiating session on a new coast wide contract. The PMA alleges that the slowdowns at these Pacific Northwest ports have resulted in terminal productivity being reduced by an average of 40 to 60%.

“We are calling upon the ILWU to cease its slowdowns and agree to a temporary contract extension while we negotiate a new contract,” Gates said. “The Union’s agreement to a contract extension would give confidence to shippers and the general public, and would prove our willingness to solve our differences at the negotiating table, rather than by staging illegal actions at the docks.”

“The PMA remains committed to good-faith bargaining until an agreement can be reached,” Gates said. “It is extremely difficult to have meaningful negotiations under the current conditions in which the ILWU is deliberately slowing productivity in order to pressure our member companies. We urge the ILWU to re-think their slowdown strategy, which has the potential to cause great damage to the local, regional and national economies. It is essential that we resolve our differences at the negotiating table, rather than on the job site.”

“Congestion at key ports is the result of three factors – some of which is from employer mismanagement, according to industry experts,” said ILWU spokesperson Craig Merrilees. The three factors are:

1. A change in the business model used to maintain and allocate truck chassis. The employer’s decision to change their business model is preventing chassis systems from being delivered to the right place at the right time. The Journal of Commerce reported on Oct. 10, “Chassis shortages and dislocations are believed to be the single biggest contributor to marine terminal congestion in Los Angeles-Long Beach.”

2. A shortage of truck drivers who are needed to move containers at ports has left shippers scrambling to fill vacant positions and haul containers to distribution facilities. On Oct. 13, the JOC quoted an industry insider who said, “Frustrated by port congestion, drayage drivers increasingly looking for other jobs – both in and out of trucking.”

3. A shortage of rail car capacity has led to delays in moving containers from the docks to distant locations via rail. On October 31, Progressive Railroading outlined the issue in an article titled “Rail-car backlog reached record level in 3Q.” Rail capacity has been stretched to the limit by additional shipments of crude oil.

The ILWU has called for talks to resume on Wednesday.