Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Federal Mediation Enters the Arena as US West Coast Container and Bulk Freight Dispute Continues

Both Sides Need to Consider the Others Point of View before Cargo Terminals Return to Normal
Shipping News Feature

US – Our report on December 29 regarding the possibility of mediation in the West Coast docks dispute which is currently crippling large sections of container and bulk freight movements, elicited an immediate response from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), criticising the management of the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) which represents the employers, for not sending their most senior Executive members to the negotiations. The ILWU said that the eleven members of the PMA’s Board of Directors are largely carriers but also are the chief officers of the largest terminals, none of whom have had any direct participation in negotiations since the parties began bargaining in May.

The ILWU states that the problems are largely carrier caused with the companies not providing sufficient chassis to move the boxes, outsourcing chassis pools to remote locations and a host of other gripes including ‘building too big ships’ and ‘entering into non-competitive alliances with each other’. Other complaints ae regarding the use of a public relations firm to place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the workforce slow down. Robert McEllrath, ILWU President and Chairman of the Union’s Negotiating Committee, commented:

“Indirect negotiations won’t get us over the finish line. The few issues that remain unresolved relate directly to the carriers and these key carriers need to come to the table. The men and women who work the docks up and down the West Coast can’t fix the current supply chain failures and industry experts know it. The irony of PMA’s slowdown allegation is that, in addition to dishonestly blaming workers for current congestion problems, it obscures the fact that PMA member companies are working behind the scenes to trigger labour disputes in order to cut labour costs and consolidate more control over workers on the docks. We’ve seen all this before. Our singular focus at this moment is getting a good contract for the members of the ILWU. I think we’re almost there.”

Now the situation has radically changed with the news that federal mediators are to be introduced to the deadlock. On January 5 the US Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service announced in a statement it was to be present at future talks and the news was welcomed, certainly by the port representatives. Calling the action a key first step in breaking the eight-month negotiating impasse Port of Oakland Executive Director Chris Lytle, went on to say:

"The announcement shows that both sides understand the importance of arriving at a contract settlement. The impasse has affected port operations up and down the West Coast and the sooner it's resolved, the sooner we can resume the normal flow of trade in and out of the US."

The downturn in trade seen by many ports between Los Angeles to Seattle in the past three months were blamed squarely on this labour dispute. The Port of Oakland is not part of the waterfront labour talks, as a landlord port, it leases its facilities to the private-sector operators who manage terminals and hire longshore workers but of course the problems impact upon the port itself. The Oakland seaport is the fifth busiest container port in the US and in a statement was keen to point out some of the actions which port and terminal operators there have taken to reduce the impact of the stalled negotiations.

Such steps have included night and weekend gates to help ease a cargo build up at marine terminals, express lanes to speed the movement of containerised imports out of the port and daily status updates for customers that include reports on waterfront staffing levels. The Port of Oakland statement continues:

“Mediation is just the first step in producing a new contract for dock workers. The goal is to craft a deal that can be ratified by employers and the full union membership. Both sides have remained mum on the issues that stand in the way an agreement.”

The question will be of course, after such a length of time when many customers have received poor service, is whether those who have found alternative methods and locations to import and export their cargo, will ever want to return to the ports they had previously used.