Productivity decline cuts container numbers at ports

The November cargo handling numbers were in for West Coast ports Thursday, and the story they told was not pleasant.

For the first time in nine months, the container volumes at the Port of Tacoma declined in November, the port reported Thursday. Other West Coast ports also reported dips.

That 8 percent decline from November 2014 reflects the effect of a container handling slowdown that has affected the speed container ships are being loaded and unloaded at the port since the slowdown began on Halloween.

The story is much the same for other major West Coast ports affected by a dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators up and down the West Coast.

At the Port of Seattle, container volumes were down 19 percent last month. At the busy Port of Los Angeles, where the slowdown began later than it did in the Pacific Northwest, container handling volumes were off 3 percent. At the nearby Port of Long Beach loaded import container traffic was down by 0.9 percent and exported loaded container numbers were off by 14.5 percent

Meanwhile, East Coast ports were reporting high single-digit percentage increases in container traffic as some shippers were diverting cargo to eastern ports where labor relations are normal.

The long-term contract between the ILWU and the PMA expired on July 1. That contract covers cargo handling at 29 West Coast ports. The two sides had informally agreed to continue operating as if the old contract were still in force. That agreement fell apart at the end of October when the two sides felt negotiations, which were ongoing since May, were not producing progress.

The union blames mismanagement of cargoes and terminals for the slowdown. The association says longshore workers are responsible for the cutbacks in productivity.

The slowdown seems to be concentrated in the container shipping side of maritime trade. At the Port of Tacoma, other segments of the port’s business grew during November.

Grain volumes are up by 53 percent for the year. Breakbulk shipping increased by 6.9 percent through November. The auto import trade jumped by 11.2 percent. And total tonnage handled by the port was up 15.1 percent. One major sector declining was log exports which were off by 22.3 percent because of a weak housing market in China, the port said.

For the year, container traffic is still up because of increases in volume before the slowdown began. Through November, the Port of Tacoma has handles 1,877,301 container units. That compares with 1,717,511 units through November last year.

The PMA said Wednesday the two sides were not close to resolution of their differences.