Port of Tacoma

Between presidential holidays, labor disagreements little work scheduled on Tacoma waterfront

Puget Sound and West Coast waterfronts will move close to a complete shutdown over the next five days, say union and employer spokespersons.

The near-complete shutdown will come thanks to a combination of an unresolved labor dispute, the occurrence of two presidential birthday holidays and employers’ insistence they won’t pay longshore workers extra for what they says is slow work.

Over the next five days, say waterfront executives, only one of a possible 15 shifts is expected to operate at even a diminished pace at the ports’ container terminals. That torpid pace of production is the latest reduction in work in a slowdown that began Oct. 31. Waterfront shipping lines and terminal operators contend the slowdown’s blame belongs to the International Longshore Workers Union. The union says the glacial pace of operations is because of employers canceling shifts and mismanaging resources.

According to the now-expired contract between the Longshore Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, the PMA recognizes 15 holidays for longshore workers including Lincoln’s birthday, agricultural labor leader Cesar Chavez’s birthday, Longshore Union founding member Harry Bridges’ birthday and Bloody Thursday. The original Bloody Thursday, July 5, 1934, was the day two union sympathizers in San Francisco died from police gunshots in an attempt by employers to reopen the waterfront crippled by an 83-day West Coast Maritime Strike.

Tacoma ILWU Local 23 President Dean McGrath said that in normal times, the docks would continue working on Lincoln’s birthday, Thursday and on Presidents Day, Monday. Workers laboring on those days would be entitled to extra pay for working on the holidays.

But the PMA, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators in talks aimed at reaching a new contract agreement, has chosen not to employ holiday workers and has canceled both nighttime and weekend shifts at the docks.

“Weekend and holiday pay rates command a premium of at least 50 percent of the basic longshore wage rate,” said the PMA in a prepared statement. “As a result, working hours on those days would be paid at between $54 and $75 per hour for longshore workers and clerks, and between $77 and $92 per hour for foremen. PMA members have concluded that they will not conduct vessel operations on those dates, paying full shifts of ILWU workers such high rates for severely diminished productivity while the backlog of cargo at West Coast ports grows,” said the employer group.

McGrath said that if the shipping lines and terminal operators want to help clear up the backlog in the terminals, they’ll restart night and holiday operations.

Retailers, manufacturers and exporters have complained the port slowdown is killing their businesses. Goods and parts ordered from overseas months ago are still languishing on the docks, and export containers are reaching customers after the goods are spoiled or are no longer needed.

On Wednesday, four containerships were anchored in Commencement Bay, and nearly all of the port’s container berths were filled with ships that were being loaded and unloaded at a reduced pace.

The PMA has threatened to impose a complete lockdown on the docks unless the union accepts contract proposals the employers have made in negotiations in San Francisco.

McGrath, in San Francisco attending those negotiations, said most major issues have been settled, but the PMA is holding up final agreement on several smaller issues.

The PMA contends, for instance, that the union wants the contract to give it the power to fire arbitrators who don’t agree with the union’s point of view. Those arbitrators rule on work issues as they arise in ports up and down the coast.

McGrath said the PMA has mischaracterized the union’s stance.

“We have presented seven different proposals to them on this issue,” he said.

While little work is expected to happen at container terminals, work continues at a normal pace at the Port of Tacoma’s two terminals serving Alaska and Hawaii, at the grain terminal, and at a wharf where autos and bulky items are loaded and unloaded.