With the politically liberal communities of San Francisco to the west and Berkeley to the east, Oakland has a reputation of being a hot spot for activism. That’s always provided an uneasy mix with the largely conservative worlds of trade and transportation.
Events in the past two months have brought the clashes between these two cultures to a boil, and the Port of Oakland and its backers are concerned future disruptions could erode Oakland’s advantages as a cargo gateway. Those advantages include a productive longshore labor force and a deep-water port serving the export-rich Central Valley of California.
None of those advantages do much good, however, when cargo is at a standstill at Oakland. The port had a series of disruptions in operations last fall, adding to Oakland’s reputation for labor militancy and raising concerns among shippers, truckers and terminal operators. “To be blunt, they don’t like doing business with the port,” John McLaurin, president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, wrote in an e-mail to Port of Oakland officials in the wake of the Dec. 12 shutdown. “As a result, out of frustration, some cargo owners are actively looking into alternatives to the port.”
Oakland on Nov. 2 was the first U.S. port to see disruptions from the Occupy Wall Street movement when thousands of demonstrators shut down the port for an evening shift. The Occupy forces expanded their demonstrations on Dec. 12 to cover most West Coast ports, but Oakland was the only port to experience significant disruptions. The Port of Portland also reported some shutdowns of terminals, but there was little if any real impact on cargo handling.
International Longshore and Warehouse Union locals in Oakland also have a reputation for militancy that’s grown from the heated debates over the status of port truck drivers to recent concerns over the safety of refrigerated containers.
Following reports that several reefer containers serviced in Vietnam earlier in 2011 exploded, killing two workers in Vietnam and one in Brazil, the ILWU international in mid-November secured an arbitrator’s ruling requiring strict documentation and inspection requirements for reefer containers.
The process has worked relatively smoothly at most ports, but agricultural exporters in Northern California say the ILWU locals in Oakland have been difficult to work with, imposing rigid reporting and inspection procedures beyond what was stipulated and what other ports are requiring. The result is refrigerated exports in Oakland experience lengthy delays and missed voyages, and a reefer container shortage has developed.
For its part, the Port of Oakland has no direct control over Occupy demonstrators and does not employ or control dockworkers who handle cargo at terminals. The ILWU works for terminal operators, and their paychecks are cut by the Pacific Maritime Association employers’ group.
But complaints about port closures and labor issues are hurting Oakland’s competitive position, and port officials are concerned. In a notice following the Dec. 12 shutdown, port officials said, “We are committed to regaining the confidence of our partners who bring business to Oakland and the region.”
“We take this very seriously,” said Omar Benjamin, executive director. Port managers developed an action plan immediately after the Nov. 2 shutdown. They arranged meetings with city and county law enforcement agencies and port stakeholders to establish new lines of communication.
Benjamin credits the network with reducing the impact of the Dec. 12 Occupy incident, which produced only a partial shutdown of the port. “We maintained a level of operation,” he said.
Communicating with city and county law enforcement agencies is one thing, but convincing those agencies to crack down on demonstrators is useless unless they are instructed to do so by elected officials.
The PMSA, which represents maritime companies in political and legislative matters, said port managers must be more demanding of elected officials. McLaurin said the city administration is viewed as “indecisive and inconsistent.”
Press accounts have detailed how the mayor’s office since early November changed instructions to police, vacillating between calls for crackdowns and admonitions to allow demonstrators to express their First Amendment right to free speech. Police in other cities such as Long Beach did not allow the Occupy demonstrators to block truck traffic in the harbor areas; in Oakland, access roads were shut down for long stretches. At the same time police were surrounding protesters in Long Beach and herding them into a parking lot, police in Oakland were standing by watching while protesters marched in circles at terminal gates, creating lengthy backups of trucks — and frustrated drivers.
Benjamin is taking these concerns to heart, and in his communication with city and county officials, he emphasized security plans in the future must keep roads in the harbor area open and cargo flowing. He termed his meetings with elected officials since Dec. 12 “lessons learned” dialogues.
Cargo interests say there is still hope for Oakland. Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition, notes Oakland has always focused on agricultural exports because of their importance to the port. Benjamin responded, “Our relationship with all (shippers) is important. Our relationship with ag shippers is very important.”
Benjamin said the port would set up meetings this month with organizations representing transportation companies and shippers. With its 50-foot harbor depth and a growing warehouse and distribution network in Northern California, Oakland is targeting imports and first-call inbound services from Asia.
There is no evidence so far of cargo diversion. According to numbers published by the Pacific Maritime Association, Oakland’s container volume through October was running slightly ahead of 2010’s pace, and 2010 was up significantly over the recession year of 2009.
“The Occupy incidents were viewed as a blip, but if they keep having blip after blip, the port will be hurt,” said Dan Smith, a principal at Philadelphia-based transportation consultant Tioga Group.