On a recent Saturday, longshoremen at the SSA Marine terminal in Oakland averaged an astounding 58 container lifts per crane per hour. Like the athletes who competed in the Olympic Games in London, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers had one goal in mind: “They set out to establish a new record,” said Sandi Lira, SSA’s vice president for North America.
The dockworkers’ performance on that shift wasn’t an isolated event. SSA’s Oakland terminal consistently averages about 35 container lifts an hour, and it has done so for years, while the average for most terminals at West Coast ports is 25 to 28 lifts per crane per hour.
The ILWU workers in Oakland operate the same type of equipment their counterparts at other U.S. ports operate. SSA has invested in modern technology and information systems, which certainly contribute to productivity, but aside from that, the Oakland operation resembles that at most U.S. terminals.
There is, however, one intangible ingredient that separates the SSA operation from other container terminals, Chief Operating Officer Ed DeNike said. The longshoremen working at the Oakland terminal show up on time and they keep their breaks to the times listed in the waterfront contract. Overseeing the terminal are ILWU foremen who instill a sense of pride in the workers.
“It starts with the walking bosses. They are very professional in Oakland. They want to do the right thing,” DeNike said.
Marine terminal operators could benefit by adopting the Oakland model. Vessels are becoming ever larger, with ships capable of carrying 8,000 to 10,000 20-foot containers soon to become the standard at larger gateways, about twice the size of ships little more than a decade ago. Vessel operators — and, more importantly, their shipper customers with tight distribution cycles — will insist the mega-ships be loaded and unloaded consistently at 30 to 35 moves per crane per hour or they will take their business elsewhere.
SSA’s experience in Oakland also confirms a theory in the industry that modern equipment and technology are fine, but it’s the work ethic of the longshoremen, their foremen and the company supervisors on the docks that ultimately determine which terminals will achieve record productivity numbers and which operations will consistently disappoint.
Other marine terminal operators agree that Oakland container facilities generally perform better than those at other West Coast ports. The APM Terminals facility in Oakland consistently produces at least 32 moves per crane per hour, whereas its Southern California terminal averages about 29 moves per hour, said Alan McCorkle, senior vice president of APM Terminals in Los Angeles.
The long-standing relationship between employers and ILWU locals in Oakland allows employers to attract steady, productive equipment operators and foremen who understand how the terminal operates. The same ILWU work crews return day after day to the same facilities in Oakland, McCorkle said.
Terminal executives also give credit to SSA Marine for investing in technology. They say information technology, and eventually the automation of yard operations, will raise productivity to even higher levels.
Today’s cranes are pretty much created equal. The single-lift cranes at U.S. ports should be able to consistently perform at 40 lifts an hour, said Mark Sisson, who leads the marine analysis group at engineering firm AEOCOM in Oakland. Some European and Asian terminals utilize tandem-lift cranes that can lift two containers simultaneously, and they obviously get higher productivity, he said.
Aside from the cranes, other factors affect productivity. Container volumes and vessel sizes are important. Oakland, the fifth-largest U.S. container port in 2011 with total laden throughput of 2.34 million TEUs, handles about one-seventh the combined annual volume of 14 million TEUs moving through Los Angeles-Long Beach. A vessel calling in Southern California will generate about 7,000 container moves, whereas 1,500 lifts from one vessel is considered busy for an Oakland terminal. Terminal operators say the higher volumes in Southern California cause more congestion in the yard, which slows crane operations.
Work rules also can foster productivity. In Oakland, with its smaller volumes, a work crew may finish a vessel in less than eight hours if the dockworkers hustle. Dockworkers in Oakland often will blow through a shift with 40 moves per crane per hour and go home several hours early — while getting paid for eight hours of work.
Terminal size is another determining factor. The SSA Marine facility in Oakland is a “relatively small, nicely rectangular” terminal where container moves between the vessel and container stacks cover a short distance, Sisson said. That contrasts with the 300- to 400-acre terminals in Southern California, where longshoremen driving yard tractors have much farther to go to move containers between the vessel and the yard.
Operational styles likewise affect productivity. A terminal operator that maintains a “wheeled” operation, which reduces truck turnaround times, will experience lower crane productivity because each container must be placed precisely on the chassis. In a stacked operation, longshoremen drive yard tractors that have a larger bed, and the crane operator has more leeway in landing the container, Sisson said.
As terminals at busy ports automate their operations with dual-hoist cranes and driverless automated guided vehicles that move containers from the foot of the crane to the stacks in the yard, the productivity of stacked operations is expected to approach the mid-30-moves-per-hour standard common at European ports.
Nevertheless, even SSA’s competitors admire the company’s ability to foster an excellent work ethic among its longshoremen. Longshoremen at many West Coast terminals are infamous for showing up 30 minutes late at the beginning of a shift and stretching their coffee and lunch breaks an extra 15 minutes or so.
ILWU foremen in Oakland ensure longshoremen work a full eight-hour shift when there is work to be done, whereas many other terminals are lucky to get seven hours of work, employers say. Officials at ILWU headquarters declined to comment on this observation.
Oakland, though, has an advantage in fostering a strong work ethic. A clause included in the coastwide contract decades ago allows labor and management to work together to use steady labor and expedite the promotion of longshoremen to higher-paying jobs such as heavy equipment operators. Labor and management in Oakland are alone in adopting the so-called 9.43 clause, and it has paid off handsomely, DeNike said.
Adoption of the clause allows terminal operators in Oakland to attract experienced crane drivers as well as experienced top-lift operators that move containers from the foot of the crane to the stacks, McCorkle added. Both skill sets are crucial to an operation. Southern California terminals get many of their equipment operators from the hiring hall, and it’s rare that the large Southern California terminals get the same longshore crews day after day, he said.
SSA in Oakland has longshoremen that have worked consistently at the terminal for 30 years or longer. The company seeks out ambitious workers when they are young, and works with the ILWU locals in Oakland to promote workers up the ranks to equipment operators and walking bosses, DeNike said. The relationship between the company and the ILWU rank-and-file in Oakland is not adversarial, he added.
SSA has offered to pay the expenses of ILWU delegations from other ports to observe its Oakland operation, but not much has happened. The ILWU, in its philosophy of hyper-democracy, has always looked unfavorably upon any operation that creates different classes of workers, and the international has historically promoted the philosophy that longshore loyalty is to the union rather than to any single employer.
The ILWU, however, suffered a severe blow to its man-hours in the 2008-09 recession, and a general feeling is beginning to emerge that productivity is good and will give West Coast ports an advantage in attracting cargo, DeNike said. He said productivity at SSA’s terminals in Southern California since 2009 has improved to about 30 to 32 moves per hour from 27 or 28 moves before the recession.
Some ports have fostered a strong work ethic and higher productivity in other ways. The Port of Charleston consistently has 43.4 lifts per crane per hour, said Allison Skipper, a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Ports Authority.
Charleston, like other ports in the South Atlantic, runs a hybrid operation in which the crane operators and heavy equipment operators are employed directly by the state, whereas workers at the gates and those who drive the yard tractors are members of the International Longshoremen’s Association. The arrangement in Charleston, she said, has created a “culture of productivity and efficiency.”