West Coast waterfront management late Friday suspended this weekend's vessel loading and unloading operations at 29 ports, saying it will no longer pay longshoremen engaged in deliberate efforts to paralyze commerce along the coast.
The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) said yard, rail, and gate operations—namely the moving of processed containers for truck and rail delivery to customers—will continue at terminal operators' discretion. Vessel operations are set to resume Monday, PMA said.
"After three months of union slowdowns, it makes no sense to pay extra for less work," said PMA spokesman Wade Gates in a statement. "Especially if there is no end in sight to the union's actions which needlessly brought West Coast ports to the brink of gridlock."
The announcement comes 48 hours after PMA submitted an "all-in" contract offer to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in an effort to end a nine-month contract stalemate that has prevented ships from unloading their imports and has left exports sitting (and in the case of some perishables, rotting) because their goods can't get moved out of terminals.
PMA's five-year contract offer calls for a 3-percent base rate increase for full-time workers, no change in health insurance coverage that is already considered one of the best in the nation, and an 11.1-percent hike in the union's current maximum pension benefit. This offer would bring the top-of-the-line payout to $88,800 per year. Management's proposal allows ILWU to keep jurisdiction over the maintenance and repair of truck chassis equipment, a major victory for the union because PMA wanted to outsource the work to nonunion labor. On Jan. 26, under the guidance of a federal mediator, the two sides reached a tentative agreement on the chassis maintenance issue.
In a Feb. 4 statement broadcast on PMA's website, Jim McKenna, the group's president, warned that a "coastwide meltdown is a week or two away." Ships remain anchored in harbors, and cargo is piling up inside terminals due to the alleged ILWU work slowdown that has been underway since the end of October, according to PMA. Although management has not explicitly said so, it hinted that the first employer lockout of workers since 2002 is possible if the union doesn't accept the proposal and the ports begin what will be a slow process to resume normal operations.
McKenna said the latest proposal is the best management can offer at this time.
ILWU President Robert McEllrath struck a somewhat conciliatory tone on Wednesday, saying in a statement that a deal is within reach and that the "few issues that remain can be easily resolved." McEllrath pledged that ILWU will keep the ports open and warned that closing the ports at this point "would be reckless and irresponsible."
However, ILWU's rhetoric heated up the next day when it released photos on its website purportedly showing large swaths of open space at the docks of either a port or ports, none of which were identified. The union was attempting to refute management's claim that the alleged worker slowdown was clogging ports with containers and forcing ships to remain either anchored and fully loaded or sitting out in the water.
For his part, McKenna said in a separate statement that as of yesterday the two sides have been unable to "bridge the considerable gaps" between them. He charged that the union has "made significant new demands" in the talks, including seeking to change a long-held process for selecting arbitrators so it could remove those arbitrators who rule against them.
The two sides have worked without a contract since the prior pact expired July 1. Normal port operations were maintained through the summer and part of the fall. According to PMA, however, ILWU around Halloween began staging deliberate work slowdowns by not making skilled workers, such as crane operators, available at terminals during peak periods. By withholding the services of workers critical to keeping freight moving, the ILWU intentionally created bottlenecks that dramatically slowed productivity, according to PMA.
At the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, for example, terminal productivity was cut in half, PMA said. ILWU has blamed the congestion on employer mismanagement of the chassis network that has resulted in significant equipment shortages. Steamship lines, which used to provide chassis for free, have been exiting the business, leaving the provisioning, for the most part, in the hands of private chassis pools. The transition has been difficult, according to all stakeholders.
Cargo backlogs have worsened as ships sit on the water with no place to offload their cargo. As of Friday morning, 18 containerships and six bulk ships were anchored at the harbor outside Los Angeles and Long Beach, according to Philip Sanfield, a spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles. At the Port of Oakland, five ships are at anchor and 11 are idling beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, Mike Zampa, a port spokesman, said later in the day.