US West Coast marine terminals suspend Monday vessel shifts to reduce backlog

U.S. West Coast marine terminals will suspend vessel operations on all shifts Monday so they can concentrate their resources on clearing containers from the dangerously congested facilities, the Pacific Maritime Association reported Sunday.

PMA spokesman Steve Getzug said marine terminals continue to experience severe congestion “due to the ILWU’s on-going slowdowns.”

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union responded that the PMA is causing terminal congestion by suspending vessel operations at West Coast ports. “The idea that the PMA is ‘clearing containers’ when it has cut more than 70 percent of the workers during the day and over 80 percent at night is a fantasy,” said Adan Ortega, a spokesman for ILWU Local 13 in Southern California.

The PMA and ILWU have been engaged in a game of brinksmanship for several weeks now as contract negotiations continue to drag on despite the involvement of a federal mediator.

Employers suspended vessel operations during the night shifts, first in Seattle-Tacoma, then in Oakland, and last week in Los Angeles-Long Beach. The PMA said terminals had become so congested that unloading more containers at night into the facilities would push them close to complete gridlock.

Indeed, Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, told the annual conference of the California Trucking Association Saturday in Monterey that terminals in the largest U.S. port were operating at 95 to 97 percent of permitted land use. Terminal operators say productivity suffers when a terminal exceeds 80 percent of capacity.

Employers said their strategy is to remove as many containers from the docks as possible during the night shifts so that there will be space available the next morning to resume vessel unloading.

As expected, suspending night vessel operations has delayed the completion of vessel work, and therefore ships have been backing up at anchor at all of the major gateways. The Marine Exchange of Southern California reported on Sunday that there were 11 container ships at anchor, which were three fewer than on Saturday.

However, according to the ILWU, the employers’ strategy has not been working as planned. Ortega said truck traffic at the marine terminals was very light over the weekend, so “growing mountains of containers” continued to congest the docks.

The decision by PMA to suspend vessel work all day on Monday, a national holiday and a day on which dockworkers receive overtime pay, was certain to cause a stir among rank-and-file longshoremen.

With contract negotiations now in their ninth month, nerves are frayed and the PMA and ILWU appear to be attempting to wear each other down financially. By slowing down crane operations and refusing to dispatch sufficient skilled labor to operate cargo-handling equipment, the ILWU is causing employers’ costs to skyrocket, the PMA said. PMA’s website shows that each week terminals are paying 20 to 30 percent more man-hours than the same week last year, even though container volumes are up only 1 percent.

At the same time, by reducing nighttime work opportunities for longshoremen, employers hope that rank-and-file longshoremen will pressure ILWU negotiators to reach a settlement in the contract negotiations.

Despite all of these optics, negotiators are making progress, Chris Lytle, executive director of the Port of Oakland, told the trucking association conference Saturday.

“I’m encouraged,” Lytle said. Negotiations continued into the nights on Thursday and Friday and continued on Saturday. “Go back a few weeks ago and no one was talking,” he said.

Getzug said each terminal operator on Monday would choose whether or not it will work. That is the custom on holidays, he said.