Port of Tacoma cutting container backlog

The towering stacks of shipping containers accumulated at the Port of Tacoma during a nearly four-month labor disagreement are steadily disappearing as Longshore Union crews work around the clock to bring conditions back to normal.

“It appears to me to be going very well,” said Dean McGrath, president of International Longshore Workers Union Local 23, 10 days after the union and a group representing shipping line companies and terminals, the Pacific Maritime Association, reached a tentative agreement on a new, five-year deal.

Those containers stacked up as work slowed during the period from Halloween to late February as the PMA and the ILWU struggled to reach an agreement to replace one that expired July 1. The PMA blamed the union for the slowdown. The union said the shipping lines and terminal operators were mismanaging the terminals.

The disagreement ended after the two sides reached a tentative deal Feb. 20 with federal help. Union members are scheduled to vote on that preliminary deal in mid-April.

Port of Tacoma spokeswoman Tara Mattina said the port, which is a bystander to the dispute, is “encouraged by the progress” in moving both import and export containers. Three container ships remained anchored in the bay, however, awaiting space at port berths.

McGrath said some longshore workers are taking on extra shifts to get the containers moving again.

The slowdown spread misery to both importers and exporters alike. Retailers complained that Christmas goods were stranded on the docks. Potato processors laid off french fry production workers, Christmas tree growers complained that their trees dried up while awaiting shipment to Asian destinations and manufacturers in some cases curtailed production or moved parts by air when their seaborne goods failed to arrive on the assembly lines.

Rail shipments are close to returning to normal, said Dale King, Tacoma Rail superintendent.

“We’re close to balancing our inbound and outbound loads,” said King. Initially, there were shortages of empty containers, but that has been remedied.

“The port and we thought it would take about three weeks to get things back to normal,” said King. “We look like we’re going to beat that by a little.”

Many of the goods carried on container ships from Asia to Tacoma are transported to the Midwest aboard long container trains. Likewise export goods from manufacturing centers in the U.S. and from farms and orchards arrive at the port for movement overseas.