Dockworkers shut down SSA terminal in Oakland
The incident occurred at 10 a.m. local time when the terminal sent one ILWU work gang home because there were not enough longshoremen to fill that gang. Longshoremen in the other gangs then walked off, according to employers. The ILWU responded by saying SSA did not follow the proper rules for ordering workers, and SSA fired all of the longshoremen when questions were raised about the employer’s procedures.
Tensions between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association have been so high the past two weeks that incidents such as that that occurred today in Oakland have been flaring up in Seattle-Tacoma and Los Angeles-Long Beach as well. Labor disruptions are fueling the fire of port congestion that has existed up and down the coast in recent weeks. Those conditions have caused political, port and shipper groups to insist that both parties reach a contract before there is a meltdown at West Coast ports.
U.S. senators from the western states sent a letter to the presidents of the PMA and ILWU today, and port directors from Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and Oakland wrote to the PMA and ILWU this week saying the inability of both sides to reach a contract is causing economic hardship to retailers and to port-dependent workers at transportation companies across the country.
ILWU-PMA contract negotiations began in May. The ILWU has been working without a contract since July 1. With no contract in place, the grievance procedure is suspended. If there were a contract in place, both the ILWU and the employer could have prevented the incident in Oakland from taking place by immediately seeking intervention by a local arbitrator.
Even without a contract in place, such incidents could be avoided if the ILWU would agree to extend the previous contract while negotiations continue, but the union has refused to do so.
The incident in Oakland began when the terminal operator could not fill one of several gangs dispatched to work a vessel. In such cases, the employer has one hour to decide whether to work with an incomplete gang or to dismiss those workers for the shift. If the workers remain on the terminal for more than one hour, they must be paid for the entire shift. When SSA sent the incomplete gang home, all of the other longshoremen reportedly walked off their jobs.
ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees gave the union’s explanation of what happened. “SSA didn’t follow the proper rules for ordering workers this morning, and when workers questioned the company’s decision not to follow the usual procedures, SSA summarily fired those workers. When the remaining workers raised questions, they were immediately fired along with the others.”
Charges and counter-charges between labor and management have become common now since the PMA last week issued a statement accusing the ILWU of engaging in work slowdowns in Seattle-Tacoma. PMA issued a second release the next day saying the ILWU in Los Angeles-Long Beach was refusing to dispatch sufficient skilled equipment operators for cargo-handling machines in the yard.
Oakland had been calm, by comparison, until this past weekend when the ILWU said it discovered a safety defect on a cargo-handling machine, and when it called for safety inspections of other equipment, the workers were fired for the day. The PMA has been saying for two weeks now that a surge in safety claims and walkouts is common when the ILWU is working without a contract, and this calls into question the validity of such claims.
A coalition of about 100 groups representing cargo interests, intermediaries and other organizations that do business at West Coast ports has been pleading with the PMA and ILWU since spring to reach a speedy conclusion to the contract negotiations. Those shipper organizations continue to issue statements directed at the PMA and ILWU, and of late they have been requesting federal mediation.
Gene Seroka, executive director at the Port of Los Angeles, told freight forwarders and customs brokers meeting in San Diego in October the ongoing efforts to reduce congestion at the ports would be compromised unless the PMA and ILWU reached a contract.
Jon Slangerup, chief executive of the Port of Long Beach, said today that a contract resolution is crucial, but the port is nevertheless doing everything possible with its supply chain partners to address all of the factors contributing to port congestion.
The letter by the executive directors of the ports of Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and Oakland said those ports have also been working closely with their supply chain partners, “but uncertainty and delay on the docks sends the wrong signal to the global marketplace at a time when shippers have many more options for moving their goods to market.”
Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo.