For the last several months, contract negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) have progressed relatively amicably in public.However, PMA, which represents over 70 multinational ocean carriers and maritime companies, has recently issued news releases blaming labor for deliberately slowing operations at West Coast Ports and causing the current congestion problems.  ILWU was the cause bringing “the port complex to the brink of gridlock, ” PMA said.

The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach has been suffering from the worst congestion in a decade.  In recent weeks, ships have been anchored off the Los Angeles coastline for days as they wait for cargo languishing on the docks to clear.

In a November 13 news release, PMA asserted that:

  • Since October 31, members of the ILWU have continued to work slowly in the ports of Tacoma and Seattle. Various reports have detailed the dramatic impact these slowdowns are having at this critical harvest season for Washington State apples, potatoes, Christmas trees and other perishable produce.
  • In recent days, longshoremen on several shifts have walked off the job in Oakland, shutting down their terminals for the remainder of the shift.
  • In the critical ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where growing congestion has been a recognized issue for some time, the ILWU continues to short-shift crews by withholding qualified yard crane operators.

“These actions – slowing down, walking off the job and not sending the crews that are needed – will continue to push the West Coast ports closer and closer to outright gridlock,” said PMA spokesman Wade Gates. “With two weeks before Black Friday, the last thing our economy needs is a shutdown.”

In response, the ILWU said in its press release that the union is not responsible for the current congestion crisis at the West Coast ports and pointed out that the documented causes of congestion include a surge of cargo during the peak shipping season;  an increase of massive container ships that are deluging the docks with cargo; and a shortage of trailers that truckers use to haul containers from the ports to inland warehouses.  Other factors include rail service delays; a shortage of longshore workers, marine clerks, and truck drivers; long truck turn times; and container terminals pushed to storage capacities.

The public sniping, signals that both sides have grown frustrated and may have come to an impasse at the negotiation table, those close to the talks said.  “The risk of disruption at West Coast ports by Thanksgiving is increasing day by day,”  International Trade economist Jock O’Connell said.  Talks are continuing this week, but many of the issues causing congestion cannot be addressed until a contract is completed and all stakeholders can sit down to develop solutions.

A six-year agreement covering nearly 20,000 dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports expired July 1.  The two sides have been in negotiation since May.

Also on Thursday, PMA posted an updated report by maritime economist John Martin, calculating the impact of the West Coast ports on the national economy, as well as their individual state economies. The update includes Martin’s calculations on the economic impact of a port shutdown – which grows from $688 million per day to more than $2 billion per day after 20 days, considering the cumulative damage that is done. At 30 days, Martin predicts “structural shifts” will occur as frustrated customers seek new supplies and shippers permanently reconfigure their routes.