Businesses say that the union is ‘crippling’ operations over contract dispute
By Bill McMorris, November 7, 2014
Cargo ships waiting to be loaded with soybeans and corn at nearby Pier
86 are anchored in Elliott Bay, and in view of the Olympic mountains
behind, in Seattle.
Business groups are accusing the longshoremen’s union of causing a
log jam at two Washington state ports over a contract dispute.
The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents 70 shipping
companies, says that the International Longshore & Warehouse Union
(ILWU) is “crippling” the Ports of Tacoma and Seattle, which handle 16 percent of all imports.
“We have been told that ILWU business agents sent the slowdown orders
out late last week,” PMA spokesman Wade Gates said in a Monday release.
PMA said the union has “orchestrated” the slowdown and that
productivity at the ports has plummeted in the last few weeks. The ports
are running 40 to 60 percent slower than normal business operations,
according to the PMA. The union has also purposefully failed to meet the
labor needs to run the ports, according to PMA allegations.
“ILWU is not filling orders for skilled workers, including straddle
carrier operators who are critical to terminal operations. This is like
sending out a football team without the receivers or running backs. You
can’t run the plays without them,” Gates said.
The ILWU called the allegations a “bold-faced lie” in a release.
While the union acknowledged the slowdown, they said that it reflected
changing business models for shipping and a shortage of equipment and
personnel necessary to quickly unload containers.
“Congestion at key ports is the result of three factors—some of which
is from employer mismanagement, according to industry experts,” ILWU
spokesperson Craig Merrilees said in a statement.
The ILWU, which represents 13,600 workers at west coast ports, and
the PMA have been engaged in a six-month contract dispute, focusing on
wages and work conditions. The ILWU’s existing contract expired in July.
The PMA is not the only business group affected by the port
performance. The National Federation of Retailers and more than 100
businesses and interest groups are calling on the two sides to hash out a
deal. The NRF sent a letter to the Obama administration on Thursday
calling on the White House to prevent “a full shutdown of every west
“The threat of a west coast port shutdown is creating high levels of
uncertainty in a fragile economic climate which has forced many
businesses to once again undertake contingency plans that come at a
significant cost to jobs and our economic competitiveness,” the letter says.
Business groups learned the hard way that port conflicts touch every
facet of the economy. The west coast port shutdown in 2002 “cost the
U.S. economy $1 billion a day.” The NRF says that the costs would double
to $2 billion per day as America enters the holiday season.
“We believe immediate action is necessary and the federal
government’s use of all of its available options would be helpful in
heading off a shut-down and keeping the parties at the negotiating
table. This includes encouraging the parties to begin working with a
federal mediator,” the letter says. “The impact this would have on jobs,
down-stream consumers, and the business operations of exporters,
importers, retailers, transportation providers, manufacturers, and other
stakeholders would be catastrophic.”
The union said that PMA’s public statements jeopardize the chances of reconciliation.
“The union has consistently come to the table in good faith despite
PMA’s early pressure tactics,” ILWU said in a release. “Today’s
unilateral media blitz by PMA will only delay progress at a critical
point in the contract negotiations. Delays at the negotiating table are
also reflected in the growing congestion problem at major West Coast
The PMA said that a temporary contract would speed up the process,
but that can only happen if the union does not sabotage productivity.
“It is extremely difficult to have meaningful negotiations under the
current conditions in which the ILWU is deliberately slowing
productivity in order to pressure our member companies. We urge the ILWU
to re-think their slowdown strategy, which has the potential to cause
great damage to the local, regional, and national economies,” Gates
said. “It is essential that we resolve our differences at the
negotiating table, rather than on the job site.”