June 13, 2023

Confusion reigns as labor dispute ‘fog’ blankets West Coast ports


There’s the fog of war and there’s the fog of West Coast port labor disruptions.

More than a year after negotiations began and over 11 months since the last contract expired, employers and dockworkers still haven’t come to terms over pay. Accusations are flying. Those speaking to the press have agendas, as do those remaining largely silent.

Relations took a major turn for the worse starting in early June, with no resolution in sight. Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su arrived in San Francisco to meet with the two sides Monday and remained at the table on Tuesday.

Media coverage is warning of a renewed supply chain crisis, but data on ship movements and cargo operations is not particularly alarming — at least, not yet.

‘Confusing for all of us’

“These past couple of weeks have been challenging and at times confusing for all of us out here at the West Coast ports. There have been claims, counterclaims and daily concerns,” said Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka during a press conference Tuesday.

“Of course, we’re all concerned. The deal’s not done yet. Patience is wearing thin. Neither side imagined it would take this long.”

Seroka acknowledged that there have been spot shortages of workers and a “handful of bad days” with “slower moving containers than we’d like to see and longer lines on occasion for trucks, and we’ve had terminals not open their truck gates due to a shortage of labor or other business decisions.” Nevertheless, Seroka maintained that “the data suggest that the overall impact has been minimal” and “the cargo is flowing.”

Highlighting how different parties are putting out different spins, the commentary on the situation in Los Angeles from the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing terminal employers, is more dire than from the Port of Los Angeles itself, or from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

PMA-ILWU war of words

According to the PMA, the “concerted and disruptive work actions” by the ILWU effectively shut down Los Angeles and Long Beach on June 2 and “shut down or severely impacted terminal operations” in Oakland and Hueneme, California, and Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, that day.

The PMA said work actions continued to disrupt terminals in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Oakland over the weekend into the following Monday, June 5. But a Port of Los Angeles spokesperson told FreightWaves it was “a one-day event that impacted some of our terminals to varying degrees on Friday. All terminals in LA are open [as of June 5].”

Last Friday, the PMA said ILWU work actions had resumed after a pause, with the union refusing to dispatch lashers, the workers who secure and unfasten containerized cargoes, in Los Angeles and Long Beach. The PMA also said the ILWU had effectively shut down the Port of Seattle on Saturday.

Asked whether Seattle had been shut down, the Northwest Seaport Alliance, which manages Seattle and Tacoma, told FreightWaves: “Each terminal operator is making its own decisions regarding operations, which vary across our gateway. Our gateway remains open, with the level of operations varying by terminal and in each harbor.”

ILWU President Willie Adams said on Saturday, “Despite what you are hearing from the PMA, West Coast ports are open.” The ILWU said the PMA “continues using the media to leverage one-sided information in an attempt to influence the process.”

On Monday, the PMA disputed Adams’ statement on ports being open and accused the ILWU of resuming its practice of withholding lashers in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Seroka said he couldn’t point to “any one job class, any one work group or any one employer” when asked on Tuesday about allegations that the ILWU was withholding lashers in Los Angeles. “I’m not going to validate one view against another,” he said.

Data shows mixed fallout so far

Amid all the conflicting agendas, data on the labor disruption fallout is mixed. It shows little impact in some cases. In others, it does show fallout, with different ports seeing varying impacts on imports versus exports.

Seroka cited data showing that dwell time for all containers on LA port terminals had decreased 9% over the past month and dwell time for on-dock rail containers was down 18%, with the number of on-dock rail containers down 14% over the past month.

Ship-position data from MarineTraffic showed nine ships waiting offshore of U.S. West Coast ports on Tuesday (one off Long Beach, two off Oakland and six off Seattle/Tacoma). But the same number of ships were waiting off East and Gulf Coast ports, where there are no labor disruptions, and the West Coast queue was negligible compared to the queue during the supply chain crisis, when there were close to 100 container vessels off West Coast ports for months.

Weekly average data from project44 on the average dwell time for inbound boxes has risen recently, but not significantly.

Blue line: Oakland export dwell time. Green line: Long Beach. Orange line: Los Angeles. Purple: Seattle. (Chart: FreightWaves SONAR)

However, daily data from project44, which is more volatile, shows more dramatic changes. It shows that dwell time for export containers in Long Beach and Oakland have risen well above dwell time for import containers in recent days, while the opposite situation prevails in Seattle, where import containers are dwelling much longer than export boxes.

(Charts: project44)

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