News: 20 February 2015
Congestion in Los Angeles and Long Beach Port has reached a crisis stage with round 20 container ships stuck at anchor in and just outside the ports.
Shipping lines say vessels in recent weeks have been sitting at anchor for 7 to 14 days and when they proceed to berth, it takes another six to eight days to work the ships. Vessels in the trans-Pacific have been thrown so far off schedule that at least one line has no vessels available to carry containers from Asia because all of its ships are stuck on the West Coast.
Meanwhile, contract negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association appear to be going nowhere. Significant progress was made when the PMA on 26 Jan 2014 confirmed that a tentative agreement was reached that would allow ILWU mechanics to inspect all chassis before they leave the marine terminals.
However, with hopes raised that a settlement could be forthcoming in a matter of weeks, ILWU negotiators reportedly stunned employers by returning to the bargaining table the next day with a dozen new demands, some of which are considered to be highly controversial.
Meanwhile, a dangerous standoff between employers and the ILWU continues. The PMA several weeks ago discontinued all vessel work on night shifts at all West Coast ports. Employers said the container yards had become so congested that night shifts would concentrate on clearing out the container yards so the yards would be able to accept containers when vessel work resumed the next morning.
The PMA said the crisis began to unfold in Los Angeles and Long Beach Port when the ILWU on 3 November 2014 notified employers that the union hall would slash from 110 to 35 the number of yard crane operators that would be dispatched each day, and that has been the routine each day for the past three months.
The ILWU denies hard-timing employers, and said congestion has been present at the ports since last summer because of operational issues.
Contract negotiations began on 12 May 2014, and proceeded without incident even after the previous West Coast waterfront contract expired on 1 July. Port congestion has been an issue since last summer. Big ships discharging thousands of containers in a single vessel call, carrier alliances discharging containers over multiple terminals in the same port complex, chassis shortages and dislocations and intermodal rail service problems contributed to the congestion. The PMA said those problems, though real, suddenly turned into a gridlock situation in early November when the ILWU hard-timing began.
The contract negotiations have been held under the auspices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service since 6 Jan 2014 The FMCS has maintained a high success rate in mediating labour disputes across the country. The mediator cannot dictate a solution, but rather attempts to bring both parties together in a spirit of compromise.
With terminal congestion and vessel backlogs now at a crisis level, time is quickly running out, and there appears to be a growing call among cargo interests and indeed some employers that more drastic actions be taken.