Port of Tacoma

West Coast port slowdown continues as holiday period reduces activities further

The long lines of trucks queuing up on Port of Tacoma Road, a familiar sight since a labor-related slowdown of ship loading activities began Oct. 31, were absent Wednesday as the maritime community prepared for a nearly complete shutdown of activity on Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving is one of 13 yearly holidays observed by the International Longshore Workers Union, which is in thus far unsuccessful negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association for a new long-term West Coast labor contract. The PMA represents shipping lines and terminal companies at 29 West Coast ports.

Ship loading and unloading work is expected to resume Friday, albeit at the reduced pace that has been the rule since Halloween when the union and the employers concluded negotiations to no avail.

Several ships awaiting berths at the port are anchored in Commencement Bay near Point Ruston, Northeast Tacoma and Maury Island.

The slowdown has backed up both import and export container shipments as union members have cut the pace by as much as 60 percent, according to the PMA. The union blames the snarl on the lack of available chassis on which to transport the containers and on mismanagement at the terminals.

The two sides have been negotiating since May, but thus far haven’t reached a tentative agreement except on the issue of the union members’ medical plan. Their former contract expired July 1. The union has been working under the terms of that former contract under an informal arrangement with employers.

No new overall agreement is expected until at least Tuesday when main table negotiations resume between the two sides in San Francisco. During the 10 days in which there were no major negotiations, subcommittees reportedly have tackled individual issues standing in the way of a general agreement, said ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees.

Neither side is publicly discussing the issues that divide them, but some maritime industry observers say that the role that automation will play at the terminals and the role of the union in maintaining the chassis that carry the containers to and from the terminals are likely major issues.

In recent years, shipping companies have sold those chassis to leasing companies who want them maintained by less expensive labor.

The ILWU has been one of the most successful of American unions in obtaining good wages and benefits.

The PMA says the average full-time West Coast longshore worker in 2013 made $147,000 and had benefits worth $82,000 annually. Those benefits include 13 paid holidays, and a medical plan that requires little or no worker contributions and features $1 copays on prescription drugs.

The union counters that the PMA is counting only so-called A workers, who are at the top of the scale for wages and work availability. A union spokesman said that many workers, particularly those that rank lower in the union, make less and have fewer work opportunities. The average longshore worker, the spokesman said, makes about $35 an hour. Workers with special skills are paid more.

Union members may spend years in the casual ranks of the union getting work opportunities irregularly before being elevated to regular member status.

EXPORT WORRIES GROW

The Washington apple industry is losing tens of millions of dollars weekly in sales because of the longshoremen’s work slowdown at West Coast ports over contract negotiations.

“Individual firms have lost millions of dollars a week in orders. We’re estimating tens of millions of dollars each week throughout the industry,” said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association in Wenatchee and Yakima.

Sales to Asia, India, the Middle East and Caribbean have been affected since Nov. 1, DeVaney said.

“There’s an immediate negative impact on returns to growers and the industry as a whole. A number of firms (packer-shipper-marketers) have laid off 100 to 200 people or reduced hours because they’re not moving inventory at the rate they planned to,” he said.

“It hurts and continues to hurt. We need to find a solution. It’s having a huge impact,” said Todd Fryhover, president of the Washington Apple Commission in Wenatchee.

The Washington apple industry has already seen prices plummet because of oversupply. Prices are down 15 to 20 percent from a year ago, said Tom Riggan, general manager of Chelan Fresh Marketing in Chelan.

Dan Wheat of the Capital Press contributed to this report.

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