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Orchestrated Slowdowns Spread to More West Coast Ports

An already difficult situation at West Coast ports has gotten worse as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) has now targeted its scheduled slowdowns at the vital Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, where cargo congestion and delays have already been rampant.

With nearly no notice, the dockworkers’ ILWU told the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representative of port terminal and shipping line operators, which it has been in negotiations with over a new labor contract for six months, that starting Monday Nov. 3, it would not dispatch its qualified and skilled workers for transporting containers in terminal yards—a critical function at the ports.

In a PMA statement Thursday, spokesperson Wade Gates said the organization has used the same dispatch procedures for qualified crane operators since 1999. And, he said, “After 15 years, the ILWU leadership has unilaterally decided to change the rules for hundreds of qualified workers who are dispatched daily to help operate terminals at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.”

The port problem has mounted as cargo volume is up, chassis are in short supply and drivers are opting to avoid the mess altogether, and according to the PMA, the ILWU’s latest move could leave half of the yard crane positions unfilled.

Tacoma and Seattle ports were the first hit with the targeted slowdowns, and together with Los Angeles and Long Beach, the four ports handle nearly 80 percent of West Coast containerized cargo. The ILWU launched the slowdown after the latest meeting regarding a new coast-wide contract covering up to 20,000 workers at 29 ports. When the previous contract expired on July 1, both parties promised negotiations would not affect movement at the ports, but that has so far not held true. In Tacoma and Seattle, slowdowns have led to a 40 to 60 percent reduction in productivity, according to the PMA.

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According to Gates, “Although the existing congestion has had ripple effects throughout the supply chain, it is the ILWU slowdowns that now have the potential to bring the port complex to the brink of gridlock.” The orchestrated actions stand to threaten billions of dollars in commerce in advance of the holiday season.

“Given the headwinds faced by our industry, and the declining market share of West Coast ports, further instability on the docks could lead to permanent losses of cargo and jobs,” Gates said. “Ultimately, despite our differences on the issues, the PMA and the ILWU both have an interest in preserving jobs on the docks and in our communities. It is time for us to show that we are serious about reaching agreement without putting jobs and our economy at risk.”

In a letter to President Obama Thursday, the United States Fashion Industry Association (USFIA), the American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA), the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America (FDRA), and other organizations representing farmers, wholesalers and retailers, called for the government to ensure that the situation at the West Coast ports does not escalate to a shutdown.

According to the letter, the undersigned said it seems little progress has made since the contract expired in July, and said despite both parties promising to conduct business as usual, the PMA and ILWU are accusing one another of reneging on that agreement.

“The sudden change in tone is alarming and suggests that a full shutdown of every West Coast port may be imminent. The impact this would have on jobs, down-stream consumers, and the business operations of exporters, importers, retailers, transportation providers, manufacturers, and other stakeholders would be catastrophic.”

Immediate action in necessary, the coalition noted, saying the federal government should use all of its options to stave off a shutdown, including working with a federal mediator through the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS).

“The threat of a West Coast port shutdown is creating high levels of uncertainty in a fragile economic climate which has forced many businesses to once again undertake contingency plans that come at a significant cost to jobs and our economic competitiveness,” the letter said.