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West Coast Port Conditions Set to Worsen as Union Initiates Orchestrated Slowdowns

Slow is about to get slower and delays could progress further at West Coast Ports as the dockworkers’ International Longshore Warehouse Union (ILWU) has initiated orchestrated work slowdowns at the Seattle and Tacoma ports.

An unhurried pace of work has already caused rampant delays at Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, threatening holiday season shipments, but the staged slowdowns are now “crippling” Pacific Northwest ports during the peak season.

Though the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) were supposed to reach an agreement in July about the labor contract that expired July 1, 2014, the two parties are now in the sixth month of negotiations. The contract, which covers up to 20,000 workers at 29 ports along the West Coast, is reportedly being held up because of contention over health benefits.

Both the ILWU and PMA originally promised to handle the negotiations at the table in order to avoid the economic implications that a port slowdown brings, but business has not proceeded as usual sans contract.

“Now the ILWU has reneged on that agreement,” Wade Gates, a spokesperson for the PMA said in a statement Monday.

The orchestrated slowdowns were initially targeted at select terminals in Tacoma on Friday, but they then expanded to more Tacoma terminals and the Port of Seattle over the weekend. The set slowdowns started hours after the latest talks regarding a new contract, but ILWU business agents reportedly gave the orders for the slowdown last week.

Slowdowns have so far resulted in a 40 to 60 percent slowdown in terminal productivity at the Northwest ports, the PMA said, adding that in a typical hour, containers move between 25 and 35 containers, and workers are now moving 10 to 18 in that time.

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Following the few days of crippled productivity, employers demanded that union leaders return to a normal pace of business, but when the ILWU continued the slowdowns, employers were forced to send workers home mid-shift, paid for time worked, the PMA said.

“In Tacoma, the ILWU is not filling orders for skilled workers, including straddle carrier operators who are critical to terminal operations,” Gates said. “This is like sending out a football team without the receivers or running backs. You can’t run the plays without them.”

Slowing down has been a tactic among workers seeking leverage for contract negotiations in the past, and dock employees have reportedly made false or exaggerated safety claims to justify their actions.

Had the ILWU agreed to a temporary contract extension as it has in previous negotiations, both parties would have had access to an established grievance procedure under which arbitrators would have likely deemed the slowdowns impermissible as they have in the past.

“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 ILWU has not yet issued a statement on the slowdowns.

Gates added, “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.”