US West Coast ports reopen after weekend shutdown

US West Coast ports resumed full operations Monday, Feb. 9, following a weekend suspension of the loading and unloading of ships due to a labor dispute between dockworkers and their employers.

Last week, workers warned that operations could have shut down this week if they could not reach a new contract agreement with their employers.

The partial shutdown comes amid nine months of negotiation between the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the companies, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents the employees, for 20,000 dockworkers.

With mounting cargo congestion at the ports, docks have reached a point of virtual gridlock, which could have led employers to lock out workers on Monday. The result would have been the shutdown of all west coast ports.

-The 29 affected ports, from San Diego to Seattle, handle about half of all US maritime trade and more than 70 percent of Asian imports, amounting to approximately $1 trillion in trade each year.

-The union blames the carriers for the exacerbating congestion, citing a number of changes in shipping practice as contributing factors.

-The maritime association, however, states union members have purposely slowed down work to gain leverage at the bargaining table.

-On Wednesday, Feb. 4, Pacific Maritime Association CEO James McKenna said the congestion crisis was so critical that it would not make sense to pay crews if there is no way to move cargo containers into the flow of commerce because dockside yards are too clogged.

-“The system can only take so much,” he told reporters via phone before returning to negotiations in San Francisco, according to the Associated Press. “At some point, this will collapse under its own weight.”

Despite the weekend suspension of operations at the ports, the clearing of cargo containers continued at least at the five busiest ports, maritime association spokesman Steve Getzug told Reuters: in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma.

Employers and workers were set to resume negotiations Monday, but a spokesman from the maritime association said talks would resume Wednesday, Feb. 11.

Union workers’ prior contract expired in July, and since then both sides have yet to settle on wages or how to arbitrate future work-related disputes, the Associated Press reported. McKenna said a proposal made last week included but were not limited to wage hikes of 3 percent each year, an increase in pension contribution and the maintenance of generous health benefits.

McKenna said that the average annual salary of full-time employees is $147,000. However, union spokesman Craig Merrilees said while some workers receive that salary, the actual average comes out to less than $100,000 annually. He said this is because most longshoremen don’t work full-time and that full-time hourly wages range from $26 to $36.

Members of Congress wrote to the leaders of the union and maritime association, urging them to reach an agreement, as the economic consequences of not doing so are dire.

“As trade supports over 38 million jobs across the country, we strongly urge your organizations to reach an agreement, because the inability to reach consumers outside our borders impacts jobs here at home,” they wrote.

“As these negotiations continue, the US agriculture industry suffers as our specialty crop producers are facing lost export sales and increased costs for cold storage, and the US meat and poultry industry estimates losing at least $40 million each week.”

California Rep. Ed Royce (R-Fullerton) echoed the sentiment reflected in the letter, citing the ports’ importance in Southern California.

“Whether it be dairy farms in Chino waiting on feed for their stock or aerospace manufacturers in the City of Industry in need of parts, Southern California businesses depend heavily on the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach,” Royce said in a statement. “These two ports alone handle 40 [percent] of US imports and employ thousands of Californians, meaning a shutdown will cause economic harm both locally and nationwide.”

The Obama administration is monitoring the situation, White House spokesman Frank Benenati said. However, he said the solution is ultimately in the hands of the union and association.

In 2002, a full 10-day shutdown of West Coast ports cost the economy $15.6 billion. When it ended, 200 freighters up and down the coast had to be unloaded.

On Monday morning, Feb. 9, there were 23 vessels anchored at Los Angeles and Long Beach, down from 31 on Sunday, port authorities said.

The National Association of Manufacturers anticipates another 10-day shutdown that could cost the economy $2.1 billion per day.

“We think the administration has to do more than just monitor,” said Robyn Boerstling, the group’s transportation director, according to Reuters. “If the administration can impart a message of urgency, that would certainly be helpful.”

(With reports from Associated Press and Reuters)

(LA Midweek February 11-13, 2015 Sec. A pg.1)

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