Bumpy, slow-motion recovery from West Coast labor standoff

Bumpy, slow-motion recovery from West Coast labor standoff

Operations at the SSA Marine terminal in Oakland returned to normal Thursday following a dock worker shutdown on Wednesday. Nevertheless Oakland, and other West Coast gateways, for the next two months at least will be digging out from the container and vessel backlogs that built up during coastwide labor negotiations that were tentatively settled last month.

The last thing Oakland needed was another disruption by International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10. The militant local has a history of shutting the port down for any number of causes. In a statement on Wednesday following the manning dispute at the SSA terminal, the Pacific Maritime Association said that despite the tentative coastwide contract agreement it reached with the ILWU on Feb. 20, Local 10 “has repeatedly engaged in illegal work stoppages at the Port of Oakland.”

Local 10 refused to allow yard cranes, known as transtainers, to operate unless SSA added a worker to the two that are assigned to each unit. Similarly, the union demanded that a utility worker be added for each yard tractor at the facility. Existing requirements had been in effect for about 30 years.

The union had tried to include those requirements in the new contract, but negotiators rejected the extra manning, so Local 10 attempted to unilaterally impose them. SSA on Wednesday ended up firing the ILWU crews and shutting down the terminal. Local 10 said its actions resulted from “SSA flagrantly violating” the contract by refusing to order sufficient numbers of unskilled workers and improperly assigning skilled workers to do jobs that should be performed by unskilled workers. Nevertheless, SSA on Thursday submitted work orders for the day shift Local 10 filled all of the positions.

The incident could be an indicator of how Local 10 will vote when the tentative contract announced on Feb. 20th is presented next month to the ILWU rank and file for ratification.

Even more important for the fate of the contract will be the results of an election this week for president of ILWU Local 13 in Southern California. The current president of the largest ILWU local, Bobby Olvera, attempted to include in the contract a provision that would guarantee ILWU mechanics in Southern California 10 hours of pay each day. That demand was likewise not included in the final version of the tentative contract. The Local 13 election results could be released late Thursday.

Meanwhile, the West Coast gateways of Seattle, Tacoma, Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach are making progress in reducing the backlog of containers and vessels that built up during almost four months of ILWU work slowdowns that began in early November. The PMA said, and documented with numbers, that crane productivity in Seattle,Tacoma and Oakland in November dropped to below 20 container moves per crane, per hour, from the historical level in the high 20s. Employers in the northern ports said that since the Feb. 20 tentative agreement, crane productivity has generally been about 25-26.

Seattle and Tacoma, in a joint statement, said that the backlog of ships and containers that built up over the past four months “could take a few weeks to clear, although we’re encouraged by the progress we’ve already made.” The ports said the current backlog is “very small.”

Oakland is in a somewhat unique situation. Before the incident this week at the SSA terminal, the port had been making progress in reducing the backlog, and that progress is expected to resume now that the labor dispute is over, for now. However, Oakland’s operations are highly dependent upon what happens in Los Angeles-Long Beach. Nearly all Pacific Southwest services from Asia call first at the Southern California ports to discharge and reload 5,000 to 10,000 containers, and to proceed to Oakland for 1,000 to 2,000 vessel moves, mostly exports.

Port spokesman Mike Zampa said Oakland right now is reducing its existing backlog, but before long a spike in vessel arrivals will occur as ships are worked in Southern California and then routed to Oakland. This uneven arrival of vessels in Oakland is expected to continue for at least two months. Zampa noted that when there is no reliable schedule of vessel departures from Los Angeles-Long Beach, the result is a drop in cargo volume in Oakland for a few days followed by a spike of more cargo than usual.

Los Angeles-Long Beach, which accounts for more than 70 percent of the container volume on the West Coast, still faces a long haul before it returns to normal. The Marine Exchange of Southern California on Thursday reported 25 containerships were at anchor, which is two more than on Wednesday, and 29 containerships at berth. Two additional container vessels were scheduled to arrive on Thursday, 10 more on Friday, four on Saturday and five on Sunday.

Although ILWU dispatching of workers has returned to normal levels, the percentage of part-time workers, known as casuals, has been high because so much demand is being placed on the work force, with most terminals working two shifts a day plus staying open at least one day on the weekends.

Terminal operators in Southern California must also contend with chassis dislocations. As congestion mounted during the four months of work slowdowns, terminal operators limited the number of export loads and empty containers they would accept at their facilities. As a result, those containers, which are mounted on chassis, are scattered throughout the region.

It will take a number of weeks to completely correct this problem. Fred Johring, chairman of the Harbor Trucking Association, said there are still spot shortages, but “the overall chassis availability is much better.” Contributing to the improvement was the rollout on March 1 of a neutral, or gray chassis pool by the three largest chassis pool operators that control about 85 percent of the approximately 100,000 chassis in Southern California.

This so-called “pool of pools” is designed to eliminate split moves in which the trucker must oftentimes deliver the container to one location but the chassis must be delivered to a different location. However, split moves are still required at times. “We are seeing a continued requirement to return chassis to a terminal other than where we terminate the empties,” Johring said. “It is not what the line drivers like to do, and certainly impairs their ability to pick up their next load,” he said.

Bill Shea, CEO of Direct ChassisLink, one of the three big chassis-leasing companies, said that overall the pool of pools has worked “surprisingly well” during the first 12 days of operation. The pool’s management group is collecting data in all areas of the business, such as out-of-service chassis, equipment imbalances, etc., in order to establish metrics for the harbor and improve performance. It will take some weeks to gather statistically significant data.

Each chassis pool operator is working to reduce its out-of-service chassis and, as needed, introduce new chassis into the pool of pools,, Shea said. For example, the out-of-service ratio in the Grand Alliance Chassis Pool is down to 2.5 percent.

As out-of-service chassis are made roadable, the number of chassis available for use in the harbor will increase, he noted.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bmongelluzzo@joc.com and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo