Port of Oakland executives are stepping up their efforts to reduce the congestion at marine terminals that has made life miserable for harbor truckers during much of July.
“We are working closely with the terminals to improve cargo flow,” said Jean Banker, the port’s deputy executive director. Banker stated bluntly that due to a series of anticipated as well as unexpected events, “July was a month of troubles.”
Harbor truckers in recent weeks contended with long lines, job actions by International Longshore and Warehouse Union dockworkers and pensioners and holiday terminal closures that motor carriers say could drive some companies out of business if allowed to continue.
Ron Light, executive director of West State Alliance, a trade group that represents truckers in Northern California, said harbor drayage under normal circumstances is a low-margin business that requires terminal fluidity if companies and their drivers are going to earn a living.
The series of events that began with the July 4 holiday put such a strain on the port that Light told an Oakland Harbor Commission meeting last week not only the trucking community, but the entire port industry in Northern California, are endangered by the problems at the terminals.
“I told them, ‘You might want to take notice of this,’” Light said.
Many marine terminals on the West Coast close for the July 4 holiday. They remain closed on July 5, an ILWU holiday that commemorates the “Bloody Thursday” general strike in San Francisco in 1934. Two workers were killed on that day, and the event led to the founding of the ILWU.
While most West Coast ports must contend with longer lines than usual after the July 4-5 holiday, Oakland’s situation deteriorated rapidly and stayed bad longer when ILWU pensioners picketed the port, shutting it down for one work shift, to protest long processing times for medical claims.
ILWU dockworkers also hard-timed terminal operator SSA Marine as it took over the operations of APL and Total Terminals Inc. and consolidated the adjacent facilities. The ILWU lost jurisdiction over some maintenance and repair work because SSA has long-standing contracts with the International Association of Machinists, whereas APL’s maintenance contracts were with the ILWU.
The ILWU shut down SSA for a work shift to protest the consolidation of three terminals into one. Mike Villeggiante, president of ILWU Local 10, said the consolidation is bad for the Port of Oakland, saying the port gave financial concessions to SSA to make the consolidation happen.
Employers see the situation differently. APL and TTI relinquished their terminals because they could not make any money on their proprietary operations at small marine terminals. In all, five terminal operators have left the Port of Oakland in recent years because they were losing money.
Jim McKenna, president of the West Coast employer bargaining group, The Pacific Maritime Association, said small terminals in Oakland are struggling because they can’t generate sufficient cargo volume to fund their operations. Terminals are forced to decide whether they should stay in business at the port. The fact that the ILWU lost jurisdiction over some jobs as a result of such transactions is unavoidable, he said.
Villeggiante said consolidation of the terminals closed off access gates and funneled all of the truck traffic into one gate operated by SSA. He maintains that is what led to congestion at the terminal. “Disruptions by the ILWU are not the problem,” he said.
SSA has since cleared the congestion, and operations are fluid, said Ed DeNike, chief operating officer. Problems occurred during the transition because it took longer than expected for SSA to take possession of the 120 acres that had been the TTI terminal, he said. Hard-timing by the ILWU over the loss of the maintenance jobs only made matters worse, DeNike said.
As far as truckers are concerned, delays at marine terminals in Oakland are a common occurrence. Light said truckers never know when the ILWU is going to call for work slowdowns or strikes, or whether outside forces such as the Occupy Oakland movement that shut down the port in late 2011 are going to result in port closures.
“It is a complex set of conditions that wax and wane,” Light said. For the good of the entire port, he said, terminal operators must manage their work force better.
Banker said the port staff is meeting regularly with the terminals, the ILWU, truckers and other stakeholders and will act as a facilitator to get all of the parties to cooperate in improving port operations. The port’s efforts will increase now that its new executive director, Chris Lytle, has arrived in Oakland, she said.