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The growing problem of port congestion on the US west coast appears to be on the verge of spreading north to Tacoma and Seattle, sparking a new war of words between terminal operators and dockers’ unions.

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents employers at the west coast container terminals, yesterday accused the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) of initiating a go-slow at the Puget Sound ports of Tacoma and Seattle.

It claimed that on Friday, ILWU representatives had been sent to certain Tacoma terminals and issued slow-down orders, which spread to other terminals in the two ports over the weekend.  The PMA claimed productivity across the two ports had declined “by an average of 40-60%. For example, terminals that typically move 25-35 containers per hour were moving only 10-18”.

The ILWU and PMA have been locked in negotiations over a new master agreement covering the entire west coast since the last contract expired on 1 July, which for the most part appears to have taken place without acrimony. However, the PMA is also claiming it had requested the ILWU sign a temporary contract extension, which it had rejected.

PMA spokesman Wade Gates said: “We are calling upon the ILWU to cease its slowdowns and agree to a temporary contract extension while we negotiate a new contract.

“It is extremely difficult to have meaningful negotiations under the current conditions, in which the ILWU is deliberately slowing productivity in order to pressure our member companies. We urge the ILWU to re-think their slowdown strategy, which has the potential to cause great damage to the local, regional and national economies.”

The ILWU hit back, claiming the PMA statement was a “dishonest media offensive” that was “designed to smear the union and to deflect responsibility from a growing congestion problem”.

It maintained that in the six months since the expiry of the contract the ILWU had “consistently come to the table in good faith, despite PMA’s early pressure tactics, which include secretly trying to shift away thousands of ocean container chassis traditionally handled and maintained by longshore workers and refusing to bargain a training programme for longshore workers that prevents non-qualified workers from operating dangerous equipment”.

Although there is no specific reference to the growing problems at the ports of Tacoma and Seattle, the ILWU said: “PMA’s press statement dishonestly accuses the ILWU of breaking a supposed agreement that normal operations at west coast ports would continue until an agreement could be reached. This is a bold-faced lie. No such agreement was ever made, nor could it be made, given the parties’ historic disagreement regarding the definition of ‘normal operations’ – a disagreement that has been the subject of arbitrations for decades.”

And the union attributed the severe congestion seen at Los Angeles and Long Beach in recent weeks mainly to shortages of chassis, drivers and intermodal rail wagons.

Labour relations advisor Jim Tessier claimed that on Sunday, dockers in Tacoma had been told by union leaders that the PMA had walked away from negotiations and they should “work very safely”, which he claimed resulted in a two-mile truck queues at the port and quayside crane moves down to just eight an hour.

He added that Bobby Olvera, president of ILWU 13, which represents dockers in Los Angeles, had instructed his members that they were to “work safely as well”.

Mr Tessier predicted that could lead to a lock-out in Los Angeles, a repeat of the scenes of 2002, when dockers were locked out of work for 10 days, bringing chaos to US container supply chains.

There is a further complication in that it has been ILWU 13, along with Locals 63 and 94 which had been locked in a dispute with MOL’s automated TraPac terminal in Los Angeles, which was effectively shut down by the unions over safety fears, and which G6 alliance member NYK had attributed as a particular source of conflict.

“For weeks, TraPac and PMA refused to even acknowledge that the automated yard was unsafe, despite at least 11 collisions during this time period. Rather than give the union full disclosure and work with the Union to make the automation safe, the employers attempted to bully the Union and threatened us with lawsuits and lockouts,” a statement from the three locals claimed.

However agreement was reached towards the end of October where the terminal produced a new operating protocol for automated terminals, which including new safety procedures, and the unions said the first ship it would service would be the MOL Matrix, due to arrive at the terminal last Friday,.

It is perhaps a measure of the size of the backlog that according to satellite AIS sources, the vessel only docked at the facility in the early hours of this morning.

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