Port of Tacoma

Winds topple containers at Port of Tacoma as work slowdown continues

Workers at the Port of Tacoma on Wednesday were struggling to cope with a tangle of problems, some manmade and others caused by Mother Nature, to return port terminals to their normal productivity.

High winds late Tuesday and early Wednesday forced container crane shutdowns because of dangerous conditions while those same gusty winds toppled dozens of empty shipping containers from their stacks at terminals across the Tacoma Tideflats.

Work crews were laboring Wednesday to restack and secure undamaged metal containers, some 40 feet long, and to cull out those bent by their falls from the stacks of containers.

“We had containers blown over throughout the port,” said Port of Tacoma spokeswoman Tara Mattina. The number of affected containers wasn’t large considering the volume of shipping containers being held at the port’s terminals, but most terminals saw at least a few containers picked up and moved by the high winds.

Meanwhile, the working pace at port terminals remained below the norm as Longshore union workers allegedly cut their speed to pressure their employers to enhance their offers at the contract bargaining table. The union denied engineering a slowdown, but an employers group, the Pacific Maritime Association, claimed that productivity was down by as much as 60 percent.

The International Longshore Workers Union and the PMA, which speaks for terminal operators and shipping lines on the West Coast, have been meeting for six months trying to create a new long-term labor contract. The two have settled their differences over the PMA’s ample medical plan but reportedly have made little progress toward resolution on issues such as wages, jurisdiction and automation.

According to outside observers, that production pace has picked up over the pace of last week, but it still doesn’t match the customary working speed. Unlike last week, the employers aren’t sending longshore work gangs home when productivity lags. Rather, this week they are adding additional gangs to double up the dockside activity.

The diminished speed of ship loading and unloading has caused headaches for workers and business people outside the terminals who depend on prompt service for importing and exporting cargoes.

Among those are truck drivers, most of whom are independent contractors, who are moving containers in and out of the terminals. Those drivers are typically paid by the load they deliver.

At midmorning Wednesday, the line of waiting trucks on Port of Tacoma Road extended from East 11th Street on the north to Interstate 5 on the south and out onto the freeway off-ramp. Because the line of trucks was moving so slowly, queued up vehicles in several instances blocked the key intersection of Pacific Highway and Port of Tacoma Road, keeping cross traffic on Pacific Highway from moving through the intersection.

Most major container ship terminals at the port were allowing deliveries of export cargo only for ships already tied up at the docks.

The slowdown has spread from the ports of Seattle and Tacoma to the major ports of Southern California, Long Beach and Los Angeles.

In 2002, a longshore slowdown lead to a PMA lockout.

Congressional and port leaders in letters to the union and the employer association have urged the two groups to redouble their efforts at resolving the dispute. Likewise, retailers and manufacturers dependent on overseas trade have asked President Obama to use his persuasive powers to move the two parties toward an agreement.