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West Coast Port Congestion Reaches “Breaking Point”

The perpetual port problem on the West Coast has now caused terminal congestion to reach what the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents employers at 29 West Coast Ports, considers a “breaking point.”

Since the labor contract expired in July, the PMA has been locked in an ongoing stalemate with the dockworkers’ International Longshore Warehouse Union (ILWU) over terms of a new coast-wide contract. But since October, when talks started to stall, the ILWU has been orchestrating slowdowns at the ports and withholding skilled longshore workers required to man the docks.

In a statement Friday, the PMA said the ILWU has been withholding qualified yard crane drivers, key to delivering and receiving container loads from truckers, for the last two months in an attempt to gain leverage in negotiations. The move has adversely impacted cargo-handling operations at the nation’s busiest ports.

The PMA estimates that since the ILWU took its unilateral action in Southern California, the average number of shifts for qualified crane operators has dipped from an average of more than 110 per day to less than 35 per day. As a result, tens of thousands of containers ready for discharge are left idling on the docks. Employers reportedly put in orders for the necessary number of operators, and the ILWU cut the orders back by two-thirds.

“Removing qualified yard crane drivers from terminal operations is the equivalent of a football coach sending out 10 players and no quarterback. You can’t run the play effectively,” PMA spokesperson Wade Gates said. “The congestion in the terminals is near a breaking point.”

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In response, the PMA said it is reducing the number of workers ordered to unload ships on night shifts to avoid creating additional gridlock, and in hopes of focusing on clearing containers from terminal yards and getting them to their final destinations. Labor orders for the day shifts and night shift yard and gate will remain unchanged.

“Without qualified yard crane drivers who play a critical role in loading and offloading cargo containers from trucks, the congestion problem is made far worse at terminal yards,” Gates said.

“The local leaders will focus on chassis as the problem,” he added, “but they are only misdirecting the public away from the core issue that has taken a difficult situation and moved it to the brink, and that’s their decision to withhold critically-important skilled workers from the terminals.”

Shortage of trucking equipment, or chassis, has been cited in the past as contributing to the backlog, as has a shortage of truck drivers.

If a prolonged West Coast port shutdown occurs, the U.S. economy could stand to lose up to $2.5 billion per day.