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West Coast Port Negotiations Hit New Snag Over…Lunch Breaks?

Contract negotiations at the West Coast ports appear to be headed in the wrong direction, with employers alleging that unionized dockworkers are slowing the handling of cargo at the Los Angeles and Long Beach gateways by taking their lunch breaks at the same time.

Less than one month after publicly acknowledging that they remained “hopeful of reaching a deal soon,” the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) are pointing fingers at each other over a contract provision designed to ensure that cargo can be received at the gates 24 hours a day.

The PMA, which represents more than 70 carriers and terminal operators, called out dockworkers at the ILWU’s Local 13 chapter for failing to stagger lunch breaks, delaying truckers at terminal gates at the San Pedro Bay ports. The association said that the Local 13 members have stopped working from noon to 1 p.m. and from 10 to 11 p.m.

“Beginning last week, ILWU Local 13 has stopped complying with that contract provision,” according to a statement from the PMA. “As a result, longshore workers at the Ports of L.A. and Long Beach are not working the terminals between (those hours), creating significant delays.”

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The ILWU, which represents more than 22,000 dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports, denied the allegations and blamed the terminal operators for failing to keep the ports open for a full day.

“The ILWU-PMA contract allows dockworkers to take a lunch break just like everyone else,” ILWU international president Willie Adams said in a Monday statement. “Longshore workers in Los Angeles and Long Beach are working every day according to the terms agreed upon with the PMA. Terminal operators, however, open and close their gates at will, and limit their hours of operations when they are supposed to be open around the clock—24/7.”

Neither the ILWU nor PMA responded to Sourcing Journal’s requests for comment. Both have stated that they have agreed not to discuss the negotiations in the media.

A report from Bloomberg suggested that truckers have faced the biggest blowback from the delays. Cargo movement by truck at the twin ports is now “completely shut down” from noon to 1 p.m. daily, instead of normally running at roughly half-capacity over the time, “which causes a longer truck queue and delays to the trucking community,” said Yusen Terminals LLC CEO Alan McCorkle.

However, one drayage truck provider interviewed by Bloomberg said the reported lunch breaks have not had an impact on the trucking lines. Ian Weiland, chief operating officer of Junction Collaborative Transports, said the terminals have added more support at truck gates before and after the lunch hour, which has resulted in a steady flow of container appointments in and around the lunch period.

According to the same report, the ILWU is accusing the PMA of using the specter of truck backlogs to influence public opinion.

The Bloomberg report said “high-level” meetings are expected to resume on Tuesday.

Negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement have continued since May, though the prior contract expired July 1. The ports have continued to operate, with both sides of the negotiations committing to getting a deal done without disrupting the flow of cargo.

As the parties continue to operate largely as usual, the lack of public information from the PMA and ILWU makes it hard to gauge where the negotiations stand. For example, both sides reportedly had a break in negotiations over the winter, largely due to a dispute over jurisdiction at the Port of Seattle. But even that dispute has gone unresolved, with both parties remaining mum on the situation.

The tension between the ILWU and PMA builds as the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are both seeing a downturn in the amount of cargo being held at the gateways, as some importers were hesitant to bring cargo through the West Coast during the negotiations.

The Port of L.A. processed 487,846 twenty-foot equivalent units (TEUs) in February, a 43.1 percent decrease from the same month last year, when it brought in 857,764 TEUs. The neighboring Port of Long Beach, meanwhile, outpaced its larger neighbor last month, moving 543,675 TEUs, though that was still down 31.7 percent from February 2022, which was the busiest February on record for both ports.

During a press briefing Friday, Port of Los Angeles executive director Gene Seroka shared his concerns that a potential work stoppage could impact their operations.

“We’ve got to bring more cargo back,” Seroka said. “Many cargo owners continue to have trepidation about these protracted labor negotiations.”

The San Pedro Bay ports aren’t the only West Coast hubs seeing a drop in cargo. Port operations at Seattle-Tacoma also slowed in February as the Northwest Seaport Alliance reported a 24.3 percent year-over-year decline to 225,747 containers compared with 298,046 in 2022.

But rerouting isn’t the only factor in the declines, as consumer demand continues to sag and ports felt the void left by Lunar New Year, which saw the closure of Chinese factories for nearly half of the month. February is traditionally a slow month for imports due to the Asian nation’s annual manufacturing shutdown.