Longshore union workers were back on the job Monday at the ports of Tacoma and Seattle working to erase the backlog of container shipments accumulated since a labor dispute began Oct. 31 with waterfront terminal operators and shipping lines.
“It’s probably too early to say how long it will take to clear up the backlog,” said Port of Tacoma spokeswoman Tara Mattina. “It will likely be weeks before we return to normal.”
Productivity at ports from Bellingham to San Diego on the West Coast has been at a diminished level since late October when Longshore Union workers allegedly cut back the pace of their labor loading and unloading containerships.
A tentative agreement between the union, the International Longshore Workers Union, and a group representing shipping lines and terminal operators, the Pacific Maritime Association, reached late Friday put dock workers back to work full time. Union workers will vote in several weeks whether to approve the agreement.
The PMA in recent weeks had cut out night shifts and weekend work claiming they didn’t want to pay union workers for slow work.
The union countered that mismanagement of the changing working conditions at the terminals and safety issues were behind the diminished productivity.
Shipping lines have been introducing far larger ships with cargoes from multiple shipping concerns, complicating the task of handling that cargo. The union also maintained that the lack of road-going trailers to receive those containers was also behind the production cutback. Shipping lines have sold their fleets of chassis to leasing companies and banks who have little experience on the docks.
Mattina said longshore members were now working round the clock to clear up the stacks of containers stored at the ports.
Seven containerships remain at anchor in Puget Sound awaiting berths at the Port of Tacoma.
In Seattle, the situation is much the same. Workers are back moving full speed, but ships, some of which have been idle for weeks, remain anchored waiting for room at the port’s terminals.
In the busy ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s biggest, some 30 ships are queued up for a berth.
The tentative agreement will reportedly maintain the fully employer-funded medical plan, raise retirement pay to a maximum yearly amount of $91,000 and raise wages about $1 an hour yearly over the five-year life of the agreement.
Just how much business the slowdown has cost shippers has yet to be tallied. Exporters from potato processors to Christmas tree and hay growers say their business may have been permanently damaged because their overseas customers switched suppliers during the slowdown.
Importers such as auto manufacturers and retailers likewise say they may shift more shipments to the East and Gulf coasts because they’re worried that future labor disputes could again interrupt their supply lines.