A reach stacker in use at a intermodal yard (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and in the public domain)
As negotiations between the owners of West Coast ports and the longshoreman’s union enter into their second calendar year, port operations are experiencing from delays from San Diego to Seattle.
And now that mega-cargo container ships are beginning to appear for the first time along some US docks, wait times are lengthening and tensions are being ratcheted up even higher.
Federal Mediators Step In
The contract between the Pacific Maritime Association — which represents the operators of West Coast ports — and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union expired July 1. And even though talks between the two sides have been ongoing since May 12, little progress has been made as neither side has been willing to budge.
Now the US Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service has stepped in with the hopes of finding a way to untangle the stalled contract negotiations.
Last week, the PMA released a statement charging that worker slowdowns at West Coast facilities is resulting in “gridlock”.
“It appears the union’s motivation is to continue slowdowns in an attempt to gain leverage in the bargaining,” the PMA stated. “The ILWU slowdowns and the resulting operational environment are no longer sustainable.”
Labor Blames Management for Delays
Union officials counter-charged that the owners were responsible for the productivity problems. ILWU president Bob McEllrath blasted the PMA’s “illogical plan to eliminate night shifts at many ports.”
“Longshore workers are ready, willing and able to clear the backlog created by the industry’s poor decisions,” McEllrath said in a news release. “The employer is making nonsensical moves like cutting back on shifts at a critical time, creating gridlock in a cynical attempt to turn public opinion against the workers. This creates an incendiary atmosphere during negotiations and does nothing to get us closer to an agreement.”
‘Add Three Weeks’
Meanwhile, cargo owners are being advised to add three weeks to trans-Pacific import lead times in order to compensate for delays at the port facilities.
Dan Gardner, president of Trade Facilitators, a transportation industry consulting firm, said the gridlock caused by labor conflict and by the arrival of super-sized cargo container ships in West Coast ports for the first time are causing delays that aren’t going away anytime soon. He added that operators have no choice but to “recognize port delays for what they are: A permanent part of the ocean transport landscape that will not go away.”
“Simply stated, it takes a lot longer to off load a 14,000 TEU vessel than it does an 8,000 TEU ship,” Gardner said. “And they consume a lot more space, cranes, chassis, trucks, drivers and on-dock/near-dock rail capacity when they finally do get a berth.”
In recent years, many Asian shippers have begun using the mega-sized cargo container carriers because they can carry more goods at a lower cost than traditional cargo container ships. But Gardner contends that West Coast ports aren’t ready to accept them — especially with the lingering labor problems.
“One doesn’t need a PhD in Queuing Theory to know that when logs of big ships show at the same time, delays will ensue,” he said.