Pacific Shippers Say Dock Crews Slow in Seattle, Tacoma

Pacific Coast dockworkers negotiating a new labor agreement have begun a work slowdown in Seattle and Tacoma, management said yesterday, in the first large job action since their contract expired in July.

The slowdown by members of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union reduced container movement to 10 to 18 per hour from 25 to 35, the Pacific Maritime Association, representing terminal operators and shipping lines, said yesterday in a statement. The two ports handle an estimated 16 percent of containerized cargo on the West Coast, the association said.

The disruptions come as goods destined for holiday shoppers are being unloaded at 29 ports from San Diego to Bellingham, Washington. A strike or lockout could cost the U.S. economy more than $2 billion a day, according to the National Retail Federation and National Association of Manufacturers.

“There was a lot of talk of being able to come to agreement back in August, and a lot of us were optimistic,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the retail federation. “The uncertainty is wreaking havoc with companies’ supply chains.”

The 20,000-member longshore union has been negotiating with the shippers since May on a contract to replace a six-year pact that ran out. Spokesman Craig Merrilees declined to comment on whether the union ordered or endorsed the slowdown.

‘Normal Operations’

The longshoremen issued a statement disputing the shippers’ assertion that the union had pledged to maintain “normal operations” at ports during the negotiations.

“PMA’s media offensive is designed to smear the union and to deflect responsibility from a growing congestion problem that is plaguing major West Coast ports,” according to the statement distributed by Merrilees.

“In Tacoma, the ILWU is not filling orders for skilled workers, including straddle carrier operators who are critical to terminal operations,” Wade Gates, a spokesman for the maritime association, said in his side’s statement. “This is like sending out a football team without the receivers or running backs. You can’t run the plays without them.”

Port Backups

At the Port of Tacoma, most terminals “are still open, but they are experiencing backups,” port spokeswoman Tara Mattina said in a statement. Port of Seattle spokesman Peter McGraw referred questions to the maritime association’s statement and declined further comment.

Gates said the slowdowns are affecting only Seattle and Tacoma. Steve Getzug, another maritime group spokesman, declined to comment about the status of contract negotiations.

The two sides announced a provisional deal on health-care expenses in late August, without disclosing terms. Another issue is how to retrain and preserve jobs for dockworkers as automation reduces the number of positions, as well as salaries and work rules.

2002 Lockout

The dockworker union and management have said they are working to avoid a repeat of a 2002 lockout that lasted 10 days and cost the economy about $1 billion a day. Negotiations have alternated between the union and management headquarters, both in San Francisco, with public statements issued jointly until yesterday.

Uncertainty over the labor contract didn’t stand in the way of port officials in Los Angeles and Long Beach taking measures to alleviate truck and container congestion there.

The four companies that control the majority of truck chassis at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach agreed to share the 95,000 vehicle frames to speed the movement of containers and trucks, Los Angeles port chief Gene Seroka said in an interview. Previously, containers could be placed only on chassis from a specific company.

“Although there’s no real, singular answer to the congestion within the supply chain and the areas that need improvement, this is going to be very good going down the line,” Seroka said.

Thirteen ships were lined up waiting for berths at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports yesterday morning. Seroka said he’s concerned that the backups could lead shippers to send their goods elsewhere.

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