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Monday, December 4, 2023
Dec. 4, 2023

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Dockworkers union, employers clash over extent of Seattle port disruption


SEATTLE — In another development to a dispute between the union representing West Coast dockworkers and the organization representing their employers, the two parties are pointing fingers and sending mixed signals about the extent of disruption caused to port operations, including at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma.

Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the employers, claimed in a statement Monday the actions taken by the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union have caused terminal operations to slow down or, in Seattle, “come to a halt.” The Monday statement echoes what PMA said in the past few days.

“These actions have either slowed operations or shut them down altogether, impeding the supply chain and leaving ships and the American exports they carry sitting idle at the docks,” the PMA said.

The ILWU, which represents more than 22,000 longshoremen on the West Coast, said Saturday that port dockworkers were still operating at the 29 ports along the coast despite having an expired contract.

Dockworkers and operators have been negotiating a labor contract since May 2022. Their contract expired in July. The latest standoff began June 2 as a result of the ILWU arguing that shipping operators made a record profit of $510 billion during the pandemic that did not trickle down to dockworkers’ paychecks.

Both sides remain very far off on pay, Port of Seattle Commissioner Sam Cho said in an interview Monday, confirming a slowdown in operations.

Longshoremen are working at half the normal rate of container lifts compared with before the slowdown, Cho said.

“You slow the process, you’re creating pressure on the employer, and so that’s going on right now,” Cho said.

The Port of Seattle, the landlord for operators, is not a signatory on the contract between the union and the employers. The terminal operator, SSA Terminals, did not respond to inquiries.

On Monday afternoon, ships anchored near the Port of Seattle were waiting to unload, Cho said, without offering an exact number.

Tacoma and Seattle ports support more than 58,000 jobs in the region and are an important gateway of Washington exports to Asian countries as well as imports by major regional companies.

Last week, the PMA said shipping companies were diverting cargo to the Gulf and East coasts. But the shift may have begun well before the most recent dispute. Port Commissioner Cho said Monday that shipping companies have been diverting cargo since the contract expired to avoid having containers stuck at sea in the instance of a slowdown.

As of Monday, importers didn’t seem to feel the impact of this most recent dispute.

Outdoor retailer REI said it is monitoring the situation but has seen no impact on store or order fulfillment. Seattle-based Amazon and Starbucks, which rely on an extensive global supply chain, did not respond to inquiries.

The impact of redirecting cargo specific to the slowdown won’t be felt for about two more weeks, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey — the East Coast’s largest container port.

The Port of New York and New Jersey regained the top spot as the U.S.’ busiest port in April. According to global shipping giant Maersk, “shippers’ preference for sending their cargo to the East Coast vs. the West has been growing for some time.”

According to a report by investment bank Cowen, East and Gulf coast ports have gained 3.2 percentage points of market share since May 2022. The report projected that 10% of freight that has been diverted to the East Coast will not return to the West Coast, but a majority of shippers will move back once the contract is finalized.

“If you have less volume of cargo, that’s bad for the Port, bad for the supply chain, bad for truckers, bad for everyone involved,” Cho said.

Once the contract is done, Cho said, the work will be to bring shipping companies back west. But he anticipates it will take time to convince freight to return, and it is still unclear when the negotiations will conclude.

The standoff is affecting West Coast ports, including two of the country’s largest and most important hubs, in Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif. Trade associations such as the National Retail Federation and the National Association of Manufacturers called on the Biden administration to mediate talks between the PMA and the ILWU to avoid further disruption at some of the countries’ main hubs for Asian imports and exports.

The Biden administration intervened last year when rail workers threatened to strike without a contract.

According to the White House, acting Labor Secretary Julie Su is “regularly engaging with the parties, encouraging them to stay at the negotiating table and finish their work.”

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