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The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) announced yesterday that it will again suspend weekend vessel operations at 29 terminals across US west coast ports and halt ship work today (Lincoln’s birthday) and on Monday (Washington’s birthday).

In a statement, the PMA employer group said it would refuse to pay the 50% premium for overtime work at the weekend and public holidays while productivity remained “severely diminished”. It accused the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) of continued slowdowns that amounted to “a strike with pay”.

In an angry riposte, the ILWU denounced the PMA’s decision not to work ships in four of the next five days, thereby idling more ships, and accused what it described as a “consortium of international corporations” of putting “economic pressures on our members to gain leverage in contract talks”.

US west coast shippers and retailers are at their wits end as the war of words between the PMA and the ILWU deteriorates into a messy public spat, while cargo is stuck on ships or on the quayside and their businesses look into the abyss of bankruptcy.

One US shipper that uses several ports on the west coast told The Loadstar that in some ways a strike would be better, and bemoaned:  “At least we would know where we stood.”

Meanwhile, the worsening of the relationship between the negotiators seems to drive a wider wedge in the labour contract impassé, with the PMA accusing the ILWU of making demands “they knew we could not meet”, albeit the union continues to regard a deal as “close”.

Only in the event of a strike by dockers or a lockout by the employers could President Obama invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, which would, effectively, force a reopening of the ports.

Nevertheless, Taft-Hartley was not used by Obama’s predecessor George W Bush until the 2002 lockout was 10 days old, by which time over 200 ships were anchored in the San Pedro Bay area.

Elsewhere, on the west coast at Portland, Oregon, South Korean container line Hanjin Shipping announced on Tuesday that it was terminating its transpacific service to the port at the end of the month.

Operating from the ICTSI-managed Terminal 6, Hanjin accounts for around 80% of the port’s container business moving around 1,600 boxes a week and has had a presence in Portland since 1993.

Two years ago, Hanjin announced it was withdrawing from Portland, complaining of poor productivity at the port after ILWU action over the employment of two reefer monitoring employees that belonged to a different union.

However, the carrier was persuaded to continue the service by a discount from the port authority.

No doubt the current USWC labour strife has aggravated the already tense position at Portland and, ultimately, forced the hand of a carrier that has been operating in the red for the past few years and is under considerable pressure to cut costs.

However, regardless of the reason for Hanjin’s exit, shippers that have focused their supply chain on Portland will suffer and be faced with considerable extra costs to find alternative outlets, which may push some towards bankruptcy.

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