It’s starting to look a lot like hand-to-hand combat in the labor negotiations between West Coast longshore workers and their port employers.
After 13 months of negotiations, port workers up and down the West Coast still don’t have a new contract in hand. Their last five-year contract expired on July 1.
One month ago, there was talk that a new contract was imminent, but on June 1, negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which employs them, broke off over salary and benefit issues, sources said. Last year, full-time registered longshore workers made on average $211,000 a year, according to the PMA.
The gap over wages and benefits led to days without talks, and ports started seeing labor slowdowns on the docks.
Recently, contract talks resumed in San Francisco, aided by the arrival on Monday of Acting U.S. Labor Secretary Julie Su, who met with both sides.
“These past couple of weeks have been challenging and at times confusing for all of us here at the West Coast ports, challenging indeed for service providers, cargo owners and so many others,” said Gene Seroka, the executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, during his monthly Port of L.A. press conference held on Tuesday. “There have been claims, counterclaims and daily concerns as the contract talks continue to push forward at the bargaining table in San Francisco.”
Both negotiating parties have been sending out subtle messages of discontent. The PMA has been accusing the union of orchestrating work slowdowns seen in understaffed crews assigned to handle cargo container ships, red-tagging of on-dock equipment that maybe didn’t need to be repaired and inexperienced dock workers showing up for work.
With growing frustration, the PMA sent out a Twitter message on Monday noting that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were seeing the ILWU resume its past practice of withholding lashers from the terminals to tie down cargo containers, which meant some ships were missing their scheduled departure times. “The union also did not fill orders for labor from several terminal operators despite the fact they were placed properly and on time,” the PMA said.
Recently, work disruptions were most severe at the Port of Seattle, where operations shut down on Saturday after the PMA said the longshore workers union refused to dispatch workers to load and unload vessels docked at the berths. The ILWU countered that things were not as dire as they seemed. “Despite what you are hearing from the PMA, West Coast ports are open as we continue to work under our expired collective bargaining agreement,” said Willie Adams, the ILWU international president.
These work slowdowns and stoppages have been irksome, but they haven’t put a major dent in getting goods on or off the docks yet. Truckers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are seeing turn times to collect cargo this week at an overall average of around 71 minutes, said Matt Schrap, the executive director of the Harbor Trucking Association in Southern California. “Terminal times are a little slow,” he said. “We shoot for under one hour.”
Custom brokers and cargo container movers said the longshore union is tweaking the system to make its point that contract negotiations need to wrap up. “The gangs to unload cargo showing up are not fully staffed,” said one port expert, who asked not to be identified. “An order for 10 people will be placed and only seven show up. They have been sending in casual workers, the lower-skilled workers, to be lashers and a lot of them don’t have the experience. So, it takes a lot longer to get a vessel ready for departure. The business agent on a dock in the container yard is red-tagging equipment that needs to be repaired or maybe doesn’t need to be repaired.”
The port delays have prompted various retail and business organizations to urge a new contract be hammered out soon between the 22,000 longshore workers and the 29 West Coast port operators who employ them. “The time is now to get a deal over the finish line and keep this crucial gateway open for business,” wrote the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a U.S. trade association for retailers, on Tuesday. “Without an agreement, the bottlenecks and disruption that drove inflationary pressures coming out of the pandemic will worsen, creating shortages and driving up prices across the country.”
But major bottlenecks haven’t occurred yet, partly because many shippers last year started rerouting their cargo to East Coast ports, such as New York/New Jersey, and Gulf Coast ports in Houston and Savannah, Georgia, to avoid cargo disruptions. The Port of Los Angeles has lost about 15 percent of its business to other locations and is operating at 70 percent of capacity, Seroka said.
With decreased traffic, cargo containers at the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex are waiting about three days on the docks to be collected by trucks, which is about average. That is a vast improvement from November 2021 when there was a glut of cargo arriving from Asia as factories there ramped up following pandemic shutdowns. At that time, containers were waiting an average of 8.37 days to get on a truck.