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US West Coast ports playing catch-up as labour dispute finally ends

US West Coast ports playing catch-up as labour dispute finally ends
US West Coast port workers headed back to the docks over the weekend under an agreement achieved under the pressure of federal intervention, ending a dispute that left shippers frustrated and with considerable catching  up to do.

After nearly 10 months of negotiations, agreement came Friday on a five-year contract between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing 29 ports, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), only three days after the US Secretary of Labour arrived on the scene with instructions from the President to achieve a settlement or call the participants back to Washington.

At last count, some 33 containe ships were at anchor in the Long Beach/Los Angeles harbour awaiting discharge, and the potential toll on the US economy was being assessed at $2bn per day.  While some shippers were able to shift their business to the East Coast and Canada during the dispute, most could not and suffered the consequences of slow deliveries that dwindled to a trickle and led to empty warehouses and bare shelves. 

West Coast agricultural exporters were particularly hard-hit, with Asia-bound citrus left rotting on the quay. The union stayed away from a strike but initiated a slowdown that led to the PMA’s curtailment of night-time and weekend work.

The long-term impact can only be hinted at, but East Coast ports have new “talking points” in their favour for pulling more cargo through an expanded Panama Canal, now only a year away.
Early reports from the ports estimate that it will take a minimum of six to eight weeks to catch up on shipments and restore service to normal. That may be optimistic, since that estimate is based on the full return of crane operators to duty and normal throughputs.  The contract must be ratified by the union rank and file, and, historically, full productivity was not achieved during that period.   

Some relief may come because the Chinese New Year normally slows down shipments at this time of year.  On the other hand, the ports, like many worldwide, are being challenged by the arrival of ultra-large containerships operated by expanded carrier alliances.
So what was resolved in the struggle?  The union gave up nothing.  The PMA continued premium medical coverage; raised annual pension payments to $88,000 per year; and continued jurisdiction over chassis management and repair.  The latter is somewhat controversial because most chassis are now owned by trucking and leasing companies.

The final sticking point was a union demand that it be able to fire arbitrators in workplace disputes.  In a compromise, a panel will now hear grievances instead of a single arbitrator.