Port of Tacoma

Ports’ work slowdown clogging the arteries of commerce in Puget Sound

A work slowdown at the Pacific Northwest’s two largest ports Wednesday began affecting businesses as distant as Chicago as major port terminals stopped accepting export cargoes and cut the pace of imports by half.

Fruit growers in Eastern Washington, retailers and exporters in the Midwest were among those who felt the effects Wednesday of the labor dispute between union longshore workers and their employers at the ports of Tacoma and Seattle.

That slowdown by the International Longshore Workers Union was delaying the departure of ships at terminals in Seattle and Tacoma and was on the verge of causing shipping lines to divert their vessels to other ports.

The labor dispute has caused several major terminals to ban new export cargoes entering their terminals and to restrict some truckers from picking up imported containers because of the lack of chassis on which to carry those containers. The union contends that chassis shortage is the result of terminal mismanagement, not the result of any work slowdown.

The union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminal operators and shipping lines, have been negotiating for six months to reach a new long-term labor contract for all West Coast ports. The prior contract expired July 1. Union members under an informal agreement with the PMA had been working under the terms of their old agreement until Friday when they began cutting the pace of work at the terminals, according to the PMA.

Wade Gates, a PMA spokesman, said that while longshore gangs continued working cargoes already unloaded from ships, the longshore gangs charged with unloading and loading those ships were sent home by terminal operators Wednesday morning after only two or three hours on the job.

The employers’ spokesman said those gangs were sent home because of low productivity. That productivity was as much as 60 percent less than normal, the PMA contended.

Tara Mattina, a Port of Tacoma spokeswoman, said export cargoes were being turned away because the terminals have no more room to store those containers. Mattina said one shipping line is considering diverting a ship scheduled to call at Tacoma to Vancouver, B.C., if the ships already discharging cargo are still occupying the terminal.

That inability to move those containers is expensive to shippers. One major Eastern Washington apple grower reported that he had 43 containers of apples destined for export turned away at the marine terminal gates in the Puget Sound this week. That grower said storing those containers awaiting access to the terminals is costing him hundreds of dollars a day.

That same grower, said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission, told him that a shipment of 140 containers of apples scheduled for this week was postponed a week by the shipping line.

“This slowdown couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Fryhover. The Washington apple industry, which has harvested a record crop this year of more than 140 million boxes, is depending on foreign markets to absorb the increased production.

“The domestic demand is flat,” he said. That flat demand comes at a time when Washington apple production has grown from 109 million boxes in 2011 to more than 140 million this year.

Rail container traffic is being negatively affected by the work slowdown too. Dale King, superintendent of Tacoma Rail, which handles rail traffic to Port of Tacoma terminals, said train processing has dropped. On a good day during normal times, the railroad can move two unit trains of containers out of port terminals in a day. Now that pace has been cut by a third to a half.

Many of those containers hold goods destined for holiday store shelves and parts for U.S. manufacturers.

As container trains take longer to load with cargoes destined for the Midwest and East Coast, storage room for incoming trains loaded with export cargoes and empty containers are stacking up. King said he is storing some of those trains in his yard, but he is running out of room.

The BNSF Railway, one of two major railroads serving the port, Wednesday issued a notice to shippers that it was restricting the acceptance of containerized cargoes destined for the Northwest at its Cicero and Logistics Park intermodal yards in Illinois and its St. Paul yard in Minnesota.

Meanwhile at the two ports, trucks carrying containers were queuing up along major port arterials and in holding yards awaiting a chance to deliver their cargoes.

Most of those truckers are independent owners who get paid by the load delivered. They complained that their incomes were being drastically cut because the lines were not moving or were moving very slowly. Every hour spent waiting, they said, was an hour when they weren’t delivering another container.

Meanwhile in San Francisco on Wednesday afternoon, union and PMA negotiators sat down once again to discuss a new contract. The union’s slowdown began last week, soon after the conclusion of the last unproductive bargaining session.