The summer of discontent rocking the ports of Oakland and New York-New Jersey shines a bright light on the fragility of marine terminals in an era of big ships, automation, worker protests and environmental pressures. The embarrassing events also highlight the key role container terminals play in the nation’s supply chain.
When Chris Lytle in July became executive director in Oakland, he was greeted by International Longshore and Warehouse Union dockworkers angry about losing a maintenance and repair contract after a consolidation of terminals at the Northern California port. ILWU pensioners also were picketing over long processing times for medical claims. Dockworkers, who are paid to handle cargo, walked off the jobs that pay their salaries.
The maverick work stoppages generated long truck lines at the terminals, angering owner-operators whose already thin margins were depleted further by the extensive down time for which they are not compensated. The truckers, however, poured fuel on the fire by blocking the entrance to terminals two days in a row. Longshoremen couldn’t get to their jobs, and they blamed the truckers for their lost pay on those days!
The independent truckers also were trying to pressure regulators to delay new rules that will take effect on Jan. 1 and will ban old, polluting trucks from the harbor. The standards have been well-publicized over the past five years, and the California Air Resources Board usually doesn’t back off once it approves new regulations.
The situation at Maher Terminals at the Port of New York and New Jersey illustrates what could happen when a terminal introduces a new operating system while attempting to phase out a legacy system developed in-house. Extensive delays, long truck lines and angry cargo interests make for frayed nerves in a hot and humid New Jersey summer. Maher was caught flatfooted by the problems with the new system, which Navis said has been installed at 77 other terminals.
Carriers began diverting vessels to other terminals at a delicate time. The terminals are balancing widespread construction and ongoing cargo-handling activities while welcoming an onslaught of big ships on the Suez Canal route from Asia. Those ships weren’t supposed to arrive until the Panama Canal expansion project is completed in 2015, but carriers aren’t good about sharing their vessel deployment plans with ports. Their advice goes something like this: “Ships with 8,000-TEU capacity will start calling there next month. Good luck.”
Marine terminals are like automobiles. The only time we notice them is when they break down. Unlike cars, though, marine terminals have a vital, and unpredictable, human element: dockworkers, truckers and terminal managers. It may sound trite, but Lytle’s admonition to all stakeholders in Oakland that daily communication can prevent a lot of problems is probably the best advice for members of the transportation supply chain.