By Gavin van Marle

Despite the addition of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to the talks between employers and dockworkers on the U.S. west coast, terminal operators say the ports are approaching gridlock. Officials from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union maintain that the congestion crisis gripping ports from Seattle to Los Angeles was primarily caused by “managerial mistakes” on the part of shipping line members of the employers’ body, Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), most of which have decided in recent years to exit the chassis business.

“PMA made it clear in the negotiating session that they were not blaming union workers for the primary causes of the congestion crisis, explaining that the lack of space for returning empty and export containers was exacerbating the chassis shortage. This is because export-bound containers are a key source of desperately needed chassis that have become the #1 choke-point, ever since shipping lines recently stopped providing a chassis for each container arriving to west coast ports,” an ILWU statement said.

Historically, shipping lines have owned the chassis on which containers are trucked to and from the ports. However, as a result of a need to cut costs, they have gradually exited the sector, leaving a shortage of equipment that has magnified the congestion caused by high numbers of import containers arriving. In response, PMA claims the congestion has been considerably exacerbated in the past two months by work slowdowns in the north-west ports of Seattle and Tacoma, and by local ILWU chapters in Los Angeles and Long Beach reducing the number of qualified crane drivers working the terminal yards. Before November, PMA claimed that, on average, 110 yard crane operators per day would work the two ports. This has since been reduced to just 35 a day. “ILWU’s action in southern California goes against 15 years of precedent, and targets precisely the skilled workers who are most essential to clearing congested terminals. By withholding an average of 75 yard crane drivers each day, ILWU has stalled the movement of tens of thousands of containers,” it said in a statement.

As a result, PMA has pulled gangs which would normally unload vessels at night and switched them to try to clear the backlog of containers in the yards – a move described as “illogical” by ILWU. “The union has noted that cancelling night shifts and reducing bulk operations will do nothing to ease the congestion crisis. PMA appears to be abusing public ports and putting the economy at risk in a self-serving attempt to gain the upper hand at the bargaining table, and create the appearance of a crisis in order to score points with politicians in Washington,” it said. Employers countered that argument by asking where containers coming off vessels could be put if there is no more room for them in the yards.

“Without qualified yard crane drivers who play a critical role in loading and offloading cargo containers from trucks, the congestion problem is made far worse at terminal yards. In the face of near-gridlock, it makes little sense to maintain the pace of removing containers from ships when there’s almost no room for them on the terminals”

Reprinted courtesy of The Loadstar (www.loadstar.com)