Shipping lines and terminal operators say West Coast ports approaching gridlock

The operation of West Coast maritime container terminals is approaching “total meltdown,” the head of a consortium of shipping lines and terminal operators said Wednesday as he made public the group’s latest offer to the Longshore Union.

James McKenna, chief executive of the Pacific Maritime Association, said the association members will quit ordering longshore laborers to work on the docks within 10 days to two weeks unless the union and the association can reach agreement on a multi-year contract.

McKenna’s statement in essence threatened a lockdown on the docks if the nine-month-long negotiation process doesn’t soon yield a new contract.

The former contract between the PMA and the International Longshore Workers Union expired July 1. The two groups had agreed to work under the terms of the old agreement after that date. But work at terminals from the Pacific Northwest to Southern California began slowing down on Halloween.

The union blamed the PMA for the slowdown. The PMA said the union was responsible.

McKenna, in a conference call to reporters around the country, said the association had made a generous offer to the union that includes no takeways from existing wages and benefits, wage increases averaging more than three percent per year for the five-year life of the contract, a comprehensive employer-paid health care plan and an 11 percent increase in the maximum yearly pension benefit to $88,800 a year.

The PMA chief said West Coast longshore workers are already among the nation’s highest-paid union workers with average wages of $147,000 annually for full-time workers and health care benefits costing their employers some $35,000 a year.

The union disputes the PMA’s numbers saying the association’s numbers reflect unrealistic assumptions about the availability of work.

Dean McGrath, ILWU Local 23 president in Tacoma, said he was surprised by the PMA’s statement.

“It took me and everybody else here by surprise,” he said. “I don’t think it’s in anyone’s best interest when we’ve been making progress in the talks.”

McKenna maintained that the economic health of the nation is at risk because of the slowdown and the possibility of a lockout.

The PMA executive said the association is unwilling to continue the present working arrangement because productivity has been cut by 40 percent to 60 percent and because the shipping lines and terminal operators are basically paying union members to strike.

If the association imposes a lockout, President Barack Obama could order both sides back to work for an 80-day cooling-off period during which negotiations would continue. If no agreement was reached by the end of that period, Congress would decide on a settlement.

The PMA is continuing to work at the negotiating table, said McKenna, with the hope that further issues can be averted.