Containerships remain anchored in Commencement Bay while union-employer talks recessed

Even as containerships lay anchored in Commencement Bay awaiting unloading Monday at Port of Tacoma terminals, negotiations aimed at breaking the logjam between shipping lines, terminal operators and the longshore union remained recessed until after the holidays.

Both the union and the shipping concerns proposed solutions to the negotiating impasse – and those solutions involve actions the other party should take.

The International Longshore Workers Union wants executives of the shipping lines and terminals to come to the negotiating table. The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents those shipping companies and their associated terminal operators, has asked for a federal mediator’s intervention in the seven-month-long series of negotiations.

Neither side has accepted the other’s remedy. The next scheduled negotiation is Jan. 5.

The result of the standstill has been a two-month long slowdown at shipping terminals at West Coast ports that have kept both imports and exports moving at a glacial pace. The contract between the PMA and the ILWU expired July 1. Normal operations continued nonetheless until the end of October, when the pace began slowing substantially.

The PMA says the union has deliberately cut the speed of terminal operations. The union says the PMA has purposefully sabotaged and mismanaged work at the terminals to bring pressure against the union.

In Tacoma, Longshore Local 23 President Dean McGrath said Monday that the PMA continues to cancel night shifts that would help move containers to and from the ships. The PMA acknowledges it canceled those shifts, but it says those nighttime work shifts weren’t fully productive.

McGrath claimed that the PMA turned down a request from Target Corp. to open a terminal gate at night to allow the retailer to retrieve containers full of merchandise marooned at a port terminal. The PMA had no comment on that allegation.

Under ordinary circumstances, terminal gates process incoming and outgoing cargo during the daytime. Shippers who want special handling of their cargoes can ask to have the gates opened at night at extra cost to expedite passage of their containers.

McGrath contended that the union and the shipping lines are close to agreement. The PMA says the contrary is true.

“The ILWU’s press release today underscores the need for federal mediation in these negotiations,” according to a PMA press release on Monday. “Unfortunately, the characterization that the PMA and ILWU have only a ‘few issues’ left to resolve is inaccurate. Significant issues remain unresolved, including wages, pensions, jurisdiction and work rules. Further, the ILWU’s escalating rhetoric on congestion is nothing more than a smokescreen for its slowdown activities.

“The only major coast-wide issue on which we’ve reached tentative agreement is the health care plan – already one of the most generous in America,” the release read. “Even with the tentative health care agreement – identified by the ILWU as its #1 priority when negotiations began in May – the union has engaged in debilitating work slowdowns over the past two months at terminals up and down the coast.”

The remaining issues could be solved, McGrath said, if shipping line executives themselves could witness the negotiations instead of relying on second-hand summaries from their hired negotiators.

The notion that the two sides remain strongly at odds with each other is untrue, McGrath said.

“That idea is the result of their PR guy drawing way outside the lines,” he said.