Perhaps it was too much to ask for West Coast waterfront labor and management to go on forever without publicly sniping at each other. But the sniping has begun at an inopportune time for the seagoing supply chain.
The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the group representing management along the West Coast, yesterday accused the powerful International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) of starting "orchestrated slowdowns" at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, threatening to cripple operations at the ports during the peak holiday shipping season. Today, ILWU fired back, saying PMA has begun a smear campaign designed to deflect blame for the growing congestion problem plaguing West Coast ports.
The dueling statements threaten to shatter what had been an uneasy peace between the two sides as they attempt to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement covering 13,000 employees at 29 West Coast ports. The prior six-year pact expired July 1. Since then, both sides have remained at the bargaining table and normal operations at the ports have continued.
In a statement, PMA said ILWU initially targeted specific terminals at Tacoma on Friday and expanded the slowdown to more Tacoma terminals and to the Port of Seattle over the weekend. As a result, terminal productivity at the ports, which handle about 16 percent of containerized West Coast cargoes, have been reduced by 40 to 60 percent, PMA said. Terminals that typically move 25 to 35 containers per hour were moving only 16 to 18 an hour, the management group said.
The ILWU statement, which called for talks to resume tomorrow, made no mention of the PMA allegations, and an ILWU spokesman declined comment. Instead, the ILWU statement focused on denying PMA assertions that the union reneged on an agreement that the ports would maintain normal operations until an agreement was reached. The union made no such pledge, and would not be made given that both sides have disagreed for decades over what constitutes "normal operations" at the ports, according to the union. ILWU said it has consistently bargained in good faith since the contract expired despite what it called PMA's "early pressure tactics" such as secretly shifting chassis maintenance work away from the union.
ILWU also charged PMA with deflecting attention from the core problem of port congestion, some of which has been caused by PMA mismanagement. Shortages of rail cars and drayage drivers to move containers have been cited as two factors. But the primary culprit is the inability to find chassis equipment when and where they are most needed.
For decades, ship lines provided chassis to truckers for free. In recent years, however, liners have exited the chassis provisioning business and have left the market to a small cluster of third-party chassis leasing pools. The transition has, so far at least, not worked out well for the supply chain.
The Port of Long Beach, the nation's second busiest port behind the adjacent Port of Los Angeles, has proposed to establish an area inside the harbor district where truckers waiting to enter the port can drop off their empty containers and proceed with their chassis to retrieve loaded import boxes. The proposal would allow draymen to dump empty containers in a common area for temporary shortage rather bring the boxes into the complex, where there is already a lack of space, according to Lee Peterson, a spokesman for the port. This frees up a chassis to be taken into a terminal to be used to haul out a loaded box.
Today, empty containers and chassis are often trucked to off-dock warehouses and storage sites. The containers remain with on the chassis during those intervals, meaning the equipment can't be used by other parties.