West Coast port activity takes off, except in Portland

West Coast port activity takes off, except in Portland

Most West Coast ports were bustling with activity this week as marine terminals order full vessel, yard and gate work crews, and International Longshore and Warehouse Union dispatch halls are filling all of the orders.

“ILWU members up and down the coast are working to load and unload vessels as quickly and safely as possible,” said union spokesman Craig Merrilees. Indeed, the Pacific Maritime Association said Tuesday container terminals in Seattle, Tacoma, Oakland, Los Angeles and Long Beach are chipping away at the container and vessel backlogs that had built up in recent weeks when coastwide contract negotiations were stalemated.

The glaring exception on the coast is Portland. ICTSI, which operates the Pacific Northwest port’s only container terminal, said a Hanjin Shipping Co. vessel that arrived there on Feb. 3 continued to languish because ILWU Local 8 refused each day to dispatch full work crews.

“We are currently not seeing a good-faith effort by ILWU to bring productivity at Terminal 6 to acceptable levels. Additionally, the ILWU is failing to provide sufficient labor for needed container vessel and barge operations at the terminal,” ICTSI said in a press release.

The PMA on Monday informed Local 8 that the union’s failure to order sufficient manpower created a work stoppage in violation of the coastwide contract, and therefore longshoremen would be disqualified from Pay Guarantee Plan coverage for the week ending on Friday.

ICTSI accuses the ILWU of consistently hard-timing its operations in Portland since a jurisdictional dispute broke out in June of 2012. Since then, Hanjin on at least two occasions informed the port authority it would pull out of Portland if productivity did not improve. Hanjin recently made good on that threat, announcing that it was discontinuing its weekly Portland service as of March 9, taking with it 95 percent of Portland’s total container cargo.

The ILWU has another view of the dispute. Spokeswoman Jennifer Sargent said ICTSI’s accusations about ILWU work stoppages “were, as usual, self-serving and inaccurate.” She said ICTSI “arbitrarily fired entire crews of workers this week and then complained that no one was working. The fact is, ICTSI is failing to thrive in the United States because of its own managerial shortcomings, and is desperately trying to blame others for its own mistakes.”

Bill Wyatt, executive director of the Port of Portland, said in a recent interview his staff would actively seek to recruit another carrier or carriers to initiate service now that Hanjin is leaving. Wyatt said the cargo base in Portland is sufficient to support at least two more weekly services. However, in order to convince other carriers to serve Portland, ILWU productivity at Terminal 6 must return immediately to historical levels, he said.

Elsewhere on the coast, the bitter feelings left over from more than nine months of contract negotiations appear in some ways to be dissipating. There was a minor disagreement over the weekend in Oakland, but the PMA and ILWU said operations on Tuesday were back to normal.

The PMA and the ILWU both concede that given the backlog of containers and vessels, and the equipment dislocations that occurred, it could take two months or longer to return to normal operations. On the other hand, container volumes will drop off sharply next week because of the traditional Chinese New Year celebrations in Asia. The last vessels to leave Asian ports before factories shut down on Feb. 19 for two weeks will arrive at West Coast ports next week, and the ports will then have several weeks to work off the backlogs before the factories reopen later in March.

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