Port of Tacoma

Union slowdown at Puget Sound’s two largest ports has cut production up to 60 percent

Trucks awaiting new cargo were forming long lines Monday and ships were missing their sailing schedules as longshore union workers slowed the pace of work on the waterfront in Tacoma and Seattle this week in an apparent attempt to win contract concessions from maritime employers.

The Pacific Maritime Association claimed the slowdown began Friday, continued over the weekend and into this week. The association, which represents marine terminal operators and shipping lines on the West Coast, said production at some terminals has been reduced by up to 60 percent.

“Terminals that typically move 25 to 35 containers per hours were moving only 10 to 18,” said the PMA.

The slowdown began, according to Wade Gates, a PMA spokesman, within hours of the conclusion of a negotiating session for a new multi-year coastwide contract between the employers group and the International Longshore Workers Union. The two groups have been negotiating for six months without reaching a new deal for a long-term contract.

The previous contract between the PMA and the ILWU expired July 1. The two had informally agreed to continue their working relationship under the old contract terms while negotiations continued. The two, however, didn’t agree to a formal contract extension.

“Now, the ILWU has reneged on that agreement,” said a PMA spokesman.

The union denied there was ever such an agreement, but the PMA pointed out a mid-summer joint press release that spoke of such an arrangement.

Port of Tacoma spokeswoman Tara Mattina said the port has taken notice of the slower pace. There is little the port can do to change that situation, she said, other than to urge both sides to work earnestly at resolving their differences.

The port leases its Tideflats terminals to private operators. It doesn’t operate any terminals itself, and it is not a member of the PMA.

The slowdown comes at a critical time for some companies who are counting on imported goods to fill their stores during the holiday shopping times. Many retailers, however, noting the possibility of strike or a slowdown, shipped holiday merchandise earlier than usual. The Port of Tacoma, for instance, recently recorded its highest container volumes across its docks since 2005.

The PMA said that ILWU Local 23 in Tacoma over the weekend sent out crews of workers to the docks that were missing critical skilled workers such as straddle carrier operators. Without those workers, who operate essential machinery at the terminals, the loading and unloading process couldn’t continue, the employers’ group said.

“This is like sending out a football team without the receivers or running backs,” said the PMA. “You can’t run plays without them.”

The terminal operators sent those incomplete crews home, the association said.

While the union and association negotiators reportedly have reached a tentative understanding on a new health insurance package, negotiations on other issues are moving slowly. The health care issue had been expected to be a major source of disagreement in reaching a new contract deal.

The ILWU claimed it was the victim of a media blitz by the PMA.

“PMA’s media offensive is designed to smear the union and to deflect responsibility from a growing congestion problem that is plaguing major West Coast ports,” said the union.

The labor organization blamed any slowdown at West Coast ports on management problems, the shortage of truck drivers to move cargo to new destinations and the shortage of rail cars to carry containers to the Midwest.

The union said the PMA and itself have disagreed repeatedly over the definition of “normal operations” so labeling the present situation as a slowdown would be a difficult task.

Dean McGrath, president of Tacoma Longshore Local 23, declined to comment on the situation at the Tacoma port.

The ports of Tacoma and Seattle recently announced they are forming an alliance to operate and market their terminals jointly in an effort to attract new business to Puget Sound.