ILWU Turbulence Hits West Coast Ports

It’s a reporter’s worst nightmare, or close to it. You file a story, it gets published in print and events overtake it that makes you as the writer look like an ignoramus.

Such is the case with my JOC column scheduled for next week’s edition but already out in electronic form. The premise of the piece is that in the decade since the 10-day work stoppage in 2002, the West Coast waterfront, at least for container trade, has become one that is more peaceful, dependable and respectful of shippers’ cargo.

This shift was born out of competitive reality: the West Coast unlike in the 1960s through the 1990s, has competition, whether from Canada or the U.S. East Coast and this is even before the Panama Canal is expanded in 2014.

The point was that a West Coast port shutdown today could only come from the outside – like, for example, from the Occupy movement, which plans to disrupt the ports on Dec. 12 – and NOT from intra-industry (i.e. labor-management) squabbles that led to the 2002 episode. I said that the disruption stemming from the ECT grain terminal in Longview, Wash., is limited to the bulk handling sector, and isn’t really related to containers.

The only problem with all that was that as the article went to press, news broke that negotiations with the ILWU office clerical unit had crumbled after more than a year of on-again/off-again dialogue. Jim McKenna, who I reached after the deadline for the column, quickly disabused me of the idea that it’s “peace in our time” on the West Coast container docks.

“The reality is, yeah, there is concern,” McKenna said of possible disruption stemming from the breakdown in the office clerical talks. “We have worked real hard to change a perception and this is something that could turn that on its head, and that is and should be a concern for all of us.”

Now with the article in print, the emails are coming in. One was from a West Coast source, who like many when talking about union matters prefers to be off the record. The source took exception to the entire premise of the article, not just the issue of the office clerical talks.

“I disagree with your view of relative labor piece on the West Coast. I think there is growing concern among carriers and BCO’s that the West Coast is becoming more uncertain with regard to labor reliability. It is something I hear on a daily basis,” the source wrote.

“EGT is not a member of PMA but the union lashed out at container terminal operators who were simply operating as usual under the terms of their contract with the ILWU – but they were the ones targeted. You will also recall that the ILWU up and down the coast, stopped work at the time when (ILWU President Jim) McElrath walked into a courthouse in Longview – again, disrupting operations at terminals. Local 10 in Oakland was a willing partner in the shutdown of the Port of Oakland several weeks ago – with union members not showing up to work and marching with the Occupy folks.”

We will see how this plays out. With the U.S. economy perking up and an early Chinese New Year, shippers are scrambling to get goods into the country before China shuts down. Disruption on the West Coast right now would be painful, and not just for me.

Peter Tirschwell is senior vice president of strategy at UBM Global Trade. Contact him at ptirschwell@joc.com, and follow him at twitter.com/PeterTirschwell.

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