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Labour Secretary intervenes in US West Coast port dispute

Labour Secretary intervenes in US West Coast port dispute
With the US Secretary of Labour winging his way west, the US West Coast dock labour dispute entered a new phase over the weekend – a long weekend with activity in operations.

The port operators halted loading and unloading of vessels for the weekend contending that they did not want to pay time-and-half weekend and holiday wages for sluggish work they dubbed a “strike with pay”.

The Federal intervention ordered by President Obama raised the stakes in the nine-month long dispute that has increasingly congested West Coast ports and interfered with the orderly movement of nearly half the country’s containerised freight. Some 29 ports are affected by attention is centered on the Southern California ports that are the centerpiece of the country’s export/import container movements. Lurking in the background is the potential use of the Federal Taft-Hartley power to end the dispute and order dock employees back to work, but that would only follow if new mediation fails.

On Saturday 22 ships were waiting at anchor in the Los Angeles/ Long Beach harbour, up from 14 on Thursday, a number ordained to grow before the first session of new negotiations.

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, the present impasses will likely impact the future shape of container deliveries in the US, and at an opportune time. East and Gulf Coast operators have been racing to dredge the approach channels, add cranes and upgrade terminals in advance of the expanded Panama Canal opening scheduled for a year’s time. For a time the opportunity seemed rich.

But, with the continuing deployment of ultra large containerships and the postponement of the canal expansion completion, the East Coast ports have become anxious about their fate. After the early hype about the advantages of relying on the expanded Panama Canal, the parabola of growth has seemed less secure.

Further carriers have developed services via the Suez to reach East Coast ports with Asian goods. Now the East Coast ports can look forward to major shippers favouring additional diversions of cargo inbound from Asia directly to their ports.

The pattern is familiar. After the West Coast lock of 2002, which required Presidential intervention for settlement, major shippers shifted to the all-water route.

For West Coast shippers, shifting is not an alternative. One, heartbroken, shipper said he had to lay off 300 seasonal employees because he did not receive supplies for Valentine’s Day.