Port of Tacoma

Five ships at anchor awaiting Port of Tacoma berths

Tacoma’s Commencement Bay anchorages were nearly filled with ships awaiting berths at the Port of Tacoma Monday in the wake of a near total weekend shutdown of containership loading and unloading activity at port terminals.

Those ships and others anchored farther north in Puget Sound are awaiting space at the port’s berths. Five of the six ships anchored in the bay have been anchored since last month. One ship, which finally moved to its terminal Monday morning, had been at anchor since Jan. 17, according to the port.

The bay traffic jam and the growing stacks of containers in the port’s terminals are the cumulative result of more than three months of reduced productivity at port terminals tied to a labor dispute between terminal operators and shipping lines and the Longshore Union.

That backup was aggravated last weekend when the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents those shipping lines and terminal operators, made only token requests for longshore gangs to move the containers, claimed the union.

“We only saw one small gate open at Washington United Terminals over the weekend,” said Dean McGrath, president of Tacoma International Longshore Workers Union Local 23. That gate processed import containers destined for Target stores, he said. Target had made a special request to move those containers out of the terminal and paid extra for the special treatment, said the Longshore Union official.

The PMA last week warned that terminals at 29 West Coast ports were approaching gridlock, and cautioned that the employer group was contemplating a lockdown.

The slowdown began Oct. 31. The PMA blamed the slowdown on deliberate union efforts to affect shipping. The union contended the shipping companies’ management practices were to blame. The union and the PMA have been operating without a formal contract since July 1. Negotiations on a new contract have been ongoing since May.

Eric Schinfeld, president of the Washington Council on International Trade, said Monday the ports’ situation could have profound effects on business in the Northwest and around the country.

“Forty percent of the jobs in Washington are tied to international trade,” said the council president. “There are businesses that are having to lay off workers and even to shut down production because they can’t move their goods or obtain imported parts.”

“Business have gone from being upset to being angry,” he said.

Beyond the immediate problems the trade slowdown is causing, he said, is the prospect of foreign customers finding alternate sources in other countries for goods they formerly got from the United States, he said.

McGrath said he has fielded dozens of calls from aggrieved merchants, farmers and manufacturers about the slowdown.

Some of those have complained that in addition to slow or nonexistent service, they’re being billed for extra demurrage and “port congestion fees” by truckers and shipping companies.

Some of those merchants have been told their goods are still trapped aboard the anchored ships, the labor leader said. But after checking shipping records, said McGrath, he discovered their containers had been sitting in the container storage yards for weeks.

The cancellation of night shifts by shipping companies, which began last month, contended McGrath, has only caused more congestion in the yards.

The PMA contends it canceled those longshore shifts because it wasn’t receiving full productivity from those workers.

McGrath said he and other union officials from Local 23 plan a trip to Eastern Washington to talk with agricultural exporters to explain the situation.

“This is not our fault,” said McGrath. “We want them to know they need to talk with the shipping companies.”

Meanwhile, talks continued early this week in San Francisco between the union and the PMA. The union contends most issues are near resolution, but the PMA contends that several union demands stand in the way of agreement.

The PMA claimed the union is demanding the right to fire arbitrators who rule against the union in everyday contract disputes.

“The ILWU is essentially seeking the right to fire judges who rule against them,” said PMA spokesman Wade Gates. “The waterfront arbitration system is an essential check-and-balance against illegal labor actions. It would be reckless to allow a single party to change the rules as the union desires.”