Ports from San Diego to Seattle handle about $1 trillion worth of cargo each year.
LOS ANGELES — A labour dispute between dockworkers at the West Coast’s seaports and their employers didn’t take a day off for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
On Jan. 19, ports where longshoremen typically would be busy loading and unloading containers from massive ocean-going ships were unusually quiet. Operators of terminals at ports including at the massive Los Angeles-Long Beach complex ordered crews that were far smaller than normal, saying they needed to organize dockside yards already congested with containers of goods – not work at normal capacity to add more containers.
As a result, cranes sat idle and companies that want their ships unloaded and released back onto the ocean had to wait.
The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminal operators and ocean-going shipping lines, accuses members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union of purposely slowing work to create a crisis and gain bargaining leverage in negotiations over a new contract that began in May. The union blames the maritime association for the backlog.
After early signs of progress at the bargaining table, the two sides began sniping – and as tensions have risen, the rate that cargo is moving has slowed.
The 29 ports from San Diego to Seattle handle about $1 trillion worth of cargo each year according to government data, and though the economic impacts of problems on the West Coast waterfront have not been sweeping so far, exports including produce and some Asian-made imports have been affected. Retailers have complained and elected officials have urged a swift resolution.
Earlier this month, a federal mediator got involved.
Just before that, the association’s members started ordering much smaller work gangs for night shifts, making the same argument they did Monday that crews need to focus on moving containers from yards into commerce, rather than unloading more containers.
A maritime association spokesman, Steve Getzug, said employers would ask workers to resume loading and unloading cargo Jan. 20.
The dockworkers’ union says its members are being unfairly denied wages – and that the congestion is the fault of the maritime association.
Until recently, the maritime association’s members were involved in organizing the availability of the truck beds that containers are put on; after getting out of that business, there has been a shortage of truck chassis at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, by far the nation’s largest. Compounding the problem, there has been a shortage of drivers to pull what limited chassis are available.
A spokesman for the union, Craig Merrilees, had no comment other than to say negotiators for both sides met through the weekend and Monday.
© 2015 The Associated Press