February 11, 2015

Deal Lacking, West Coast Port Issues Continue

A labor dispute between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union (ILWU) continues to hamper operations at 29 West Coast ports creating havoc for fruit, vegetable and nut importers and exporters.  Following a suspension of operations over the weekend by PMA, dockworkers began work again on Monday, loading and unloading ships, many of whom have been stacked up in the waters of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.  Equally congested are the docks, with trucks backed up as they wait to be loaded or unloaded.  PMA shut down operations over the weekend to prevent paying overtime to workers they allege purposely slowed operations as a negotiating ploy.  

Meanwhile, fears of a full-blown shutdown hover over operations.  Such a shutdown could potentially cost the U.S. economy over two billion dollars per day, according to estimates from the National Retail Federation.   A federal mediator had previously been engaged by both sides to assist with negotiations.  And despite a letter to both sides from several members of Congress urging for a quick resolution of the dispute, the situation appears to be further deteriorating, leaving the produce and tree nut industries in a vulnerable position. Numerous stories abound about produce exports going bad because growers can’t get the shipments where they need to go.    

There have been several sticking points on the negotiations.  One dealt with health care costs and coverage for members of the union.  The other involves how cargo containers are moved once they get to port.  The tractor-trailer chassis were previously inspected by union representatives and owned by the shipping companies.  However since last year, the system changed and truckers now own their own vehicles and outsource their inspections.

To highlight the port issues, the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security held a hearing titled “Keeping Goods Moving” to address general port issues.  One witness testifying warned that while the hearing was helpful, it would not prevent future labor issues or resolve the current dispute.