PMA statement ‘ominous’ in pointing to possible lockout

Could the industry be approaching a point of no return in West Coast longshore talks?

The acrimony between employers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has only grown worse since a federal mediator was called in on Jan. 5 with high hopes that the agency practiced in bringing warring sides to the table would achieve a settlement after almost nine months of negotiations.

Yet even the parties are saying that since the mediator arrived no progress has taken place.  “Since the mediator joined the talks, no further agreements have been reached and ILWU work slowdowns have continued to the point where many terminals are in peril of complete gridlock,” the Pacific Maritime Association said in a statement released late on Monday.

But it’s not just that nothing has improved since the mediator joined the talks. The PMA seemed to be saying that the mediator’s presence hasn’t worked and that additional steps to achieve a resolution may be necessary. “The ILWU slowdowns and the resulting operational environment are no longer sustainable. The PMA has alerted the local port authorities to the deteriorating situation on the docks,” the employer group said.

That statement, a distinct change in the language the PMA has used in prior statements, seemed to point to something new afoot. Some believe that something is a lockout, where the union is locked out of terminals by the employers are all cargo movements come to a complete stop.

“I think that their last sentence was a very ominous one and a lockout is where it’s pointing to,” said Jock O’Connell, an international trade economist affiliated with Beacon Economics in Los Angeles, who tweeted to that effect on Monday. “Why else would they say that they are alerting port authorities? Who was this press release addressed to, the media, the union, the federal mediators, or the port authorities, that they could expect some summary action very quickly?”

Many in the industry recall the ten-day lockout in the fall of 2002, a rude awakening which led thousands of importers and exporters to diversify their international supply chains to ports in Canada and the East and Gulf coasts to avoid over-reliance on ports on the West Coast.

Calls to West Coast port authorities could not confirm what if anything the PMA has communicated to the port authorities.