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If there's trouble in Tacoma, could it spread to Ports of LA and Long Beach?

Stacked up port shipping containers
Stacked up port shipping containers
Photo by Greg Bishop via Flickr Creative Commons

The association that represents shipping companies at 29 West Coast ports is accusing the union representing dockworkers of deliberately slowing down work at two Pacific Northwest ports. The union's response: it's a "boldface lie." Tensions appear to be rising in the midst of a long running contract negotiation that affects major ports all along the West Coast.

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have been negotiating a new labor contract for the past six months. Throughout the talks, the two sides have worked jointly to reassure those who depend on the ports that neither wants a strike or a lock-out.   

When the old labor contract covering 20,000 dockworkers expired on July 1st, cargo kept moving, and the two sides issued a joint statement saying normal operations would continue until a deal was done.  But on Monday, the union and the shipping association issued dueling statements regarding events at ports in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington. 

The PMA accused the ILWU of "orchestrating slowdowns" and reducing productivity at terminals in Tacoma and Seattle by 40 to 60 percent. “In Tacoma, the ILWU is not filling orders for skilled workers, including straddle carrier operators who are critical to terminal operations,” said PMA spokesman Wade Gates in a written statement. “This is like sending out a football team without the receivers or running backs." 

Gates accused the ILWU of "reneging on an agreement" to keep normal operations going while contract negotiations continue.  

"This is a bold-face lie," the ILWU responded in its own statement, pointing out that the two sides have disagreed for decades on what "normal operations" look like, so agreeing to maintain them would be difficult.

“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, who pointed out challenges including a shortage of truck drivers, truck chassis, and rail car capacity to haul cargo away from the docks.   

The Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are battling cargo backlogs and delays for at least the first two reasons, but no port official would say the labor force is slowing down.  The shipping companies used to manage the supply of chassis - the flatbed carriers that attach cargo to trucks - but they recently turned those operations over to private leasing companies.  The transition has been "bumpy," according to a spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles.  

The Ports of LA and Long Beach handle 70 percent of West Coast cargo and are adjusting to the calls of much larger container ships. When cargo containers are unloaded and a chassis isn't there waiting to carry it away, the containers are stacked on docks, adding to the backlog. 

"If the work slowdowns spread to Southern California, the impact could be devastating," writes Bill Mongelluzzo, Senior Editor of the Journal of Commerce.  

The congestion comes at the tail end of peak shipping season, when retailers are moving goods into place for holiday shopping.  Nick Vyas, director of the Center for Global Supply Chain Management at USC said a lot of holiday goods have already moved through the ports, but if a store chain discovers that it needs to order more of a certain product to meet growing demand, it could face problems.

"These adjustments require a last minute push," Vyas told KPCC. "By having congestion at the ports, it pretty much impedes their ability to react to those market sensitive data."