Tacoma, Seattle cargo volumes decline amid port slowdown

To almost no one’s surprise, cargo container numbers handled by the ports of Tacoma and Seattle declined by 13 percent last month.

January was the third month in a row to see cargo volume declines at the two ports. Those ports, which are forming an alliance to jointly market and operate their marine terminals, are now reporting their cargo statistics jointly rather than separately.

The cargo handling decline was related to a labor dispute between shipping line and terminal owners and the Longshore Union, said the two ports.

Normal cargo handling volume dropped beginning Oct. 31 at the two ports and has continued unabated since then. The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents waterfront employers, blames the International Longshore Workers Union. The ILWU blames terminal management incompetence for the volume decrease. The two have operated without a contract since July 1.

The PMA canceled night shifts and halted weekend and holiday work this past week.

Imports took the biggest dive with volumes down 21 percent. Export numbers were better with a decline of 7 percent.

Other categories of cargoes fared much better. Breakbulk cargoes, grain, autos and logs were all up in January. The slowdown has been focused on containerized cargo, not the other kinds of shipments.

The PMA and the ILWU continue to negotiate in San Francisco under the aegis of a federal mediator. Labor Secretary Tom Perez this week was meeting with both sides in an effort to break the deadlock.

On Wednesday, maritime companies locked in a contract dispute with West Coast dockworkers took their case directly to rank-and-file longshoremen, as negotiators struggled to reach a deal and break the cargo gridlock that has stalled billions of dollars of international trade. Employers distributed letters at major ports from Los Angeles to Washington state that detailed their “last, best and final” contract offer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.