Friday, March 13, 2015

Western Ports -- Oakland's Turn

After many months, a longshore workers' slowdown of traffic through Pacific ports in the American west ended with a tentative settlement on February 20.

Except in Oakland.

After the West Coast settlement was announced on February 20, Oakland longshore workers immediately initiated another slowdown.  An arbitrator immediately ruled that it was an unfair labor practice.

Much traffic has been processed through Oakland since, but intermittent slowdowns have continued as well.

On Wednesday, the operator of the largest terminal at Oakland ceased operations at noon and sent about 45 workers home.  This followed trailer trucks lining up for hours at some terminal gates, and other gates being closed, while workers, apparently deliberately, slowed traffic to a very slow crawl starting on Monday.

In Oakland, the members of Local 10 of ILWU, the Oakland chapter of the longshore union, are demonstrating their dissatisfaction with the new contract.  The slowdowns persist despite arbitration rulings against them.  Given this week's events, the local may be turning up the volume.

The Oakland Issue -- More Jobs

What Local 10 did not get from the new contract, and still wants, is more jobs, specifically to handle the movement of shipping containers onto trucks.

According to the Journal of Commerce, "the two-worker process -- in place for 30 years -- requires workers who drive yard tractors to get out of their seats to lock and unlock containers onto the tractors.  (Local 10) demands a third person to be hired to do locking and unlocking."

The demand is for "featherbedding," hiring more workers than are needed to do a given job.  (The often-cited example was the retention of railroad firemen:  They shoveled coal into steam engine boilers but were kept on for many years after rail lines had shifted to diesel fuel and did not require such labor.)

Port employment worldwide has dropped precipitously with the adoption of containerized cargo over the last 50 years.  You can understand why Local 10 would like to have more members.

You can understand also why the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents port operators, is not interested in adding a bunch of new employees so yard cart operators don't have to get out of their driver seats and turn a few switches.

The PMA says the union is attempting to impose increased manning requirements unilaterally by making port operation more difficult.  This means slowing work on loading and unloading.

Port operators can ask the workers to speed work up to the normal rate, but it appears that the longshore workers, to quote Bartleby, "would prefer not to."

The Effects

Two days ago, the Agriculture Transportation Coalition (ATC), an export group, issued a call to arms to its members, complaining about the situation.  It quoted frustrated port customers:

        Director of Global Supply Chain for a major importer has 12 containers on board a ship 
        that is stuck in the Port of Oakland congestion, is being charged $1,540 in demurrage for 
        failing to return a container to the terminal within the contracted "free time." That importer 
        has had truckers in line daily and has at this point only recovered 5 containers.  In other 
        words, the terminal is charging the importer for cargo that it cannot pick up! 
        "The West Coast Port situation is NOT getting better.

         "We are TIRED of the Steamship Lines, Ports, and ILWU holding us and other customers 
         hostage with their politics and finger-pointing.  It is costing us $$ that we cannot afford and 
         you guys are manipulating and mis-managing the ports.  If we are not allowed to pick up 
         containers that were released late and delivered  late, then we should have UNLIMITED 
         free time because it is YOUR fault that we cannot get our freight and goods!!"

         A California rice exporter:  "We (all Oakland stakeholders) are going to permanently 
         lose customers and business, in addition to those already lost, not to mention wasted time
         and expense for truckers and others due to shut out and split/rolls due to stop receiving 
         export loads. . . . What are the issues and solutions? It seems like the local could care less 
         about arbitrator rulings of illegal work stoppage.   This seems to be personal? Please help!"

         A California almond exporter: "I don't think agreeing on a contract made any difference 
         to the ILWU. I'm not even sure ratifying a contract will make a difference."

California exports more agricultural products than any other state -- $13.8 billion worth in 2013.  Most of these products -- dairy, meats, fruits, vegetables, soybeans and nuts -- have sell-by dates that can render them valueless after long delays.  The dollar value of California sales of almonds and rice dropped 18 percent from first-quarter 2014 to first-quarter 2015; the decline was credited partly to the strong dollar and partly to port slowdowns on the West Coast.

The Oakland port, nearest to California's central valley and the heart of its agriculture production, almost certainly processes most of California's farm exports.

What Next

Starting March 30, 90 delegates of the ILWU will gather in San Francisco to discuss the West Coast contract and decide whether to recommend its passage by all the members of the union.

This seems to me to work in favor of Oakland's Local 10.

     -- San Francisco is just across the bay from Oakland, easy to reach for the local's members and their families and friends who may gather to urge the delegates to reject the West Coast contract until their issue is addressed.

     -- The Bay Area is a traditional union stronghold.  The ILWU was founded in San Francisco following months of strife in 1934.  Other unions' memberships may be eager to pressure the ILWU delegates on Local 10's behalf.

     -- Continued stoppages at Oakland, including wastage of valuable agricultural products, could lead port customers to demand that the port operators do something -- anything, including settle with the union  -- to get traffic moving again.

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