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Despite the addition of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service to the talks between employers and dockworkers on the US west coast, terminal operators say the ports are approaching gridlock.

Yesterday was a day of claim and counterclaim, with officials from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union maintaining that the congestion crisis gripping ports from Seattle to Los Angeles was primarily caused by “managerial mistakes” on the part of shipping line members of the employers’ body, the Pacific Maritime Association, most of which have decided in recent years to exit the chassis business.

“The PMA made it clear in the negotiating session that they were not blaming union workers for the primary causes of the congestion crisis, explaining that the lack of space for returning empty and export containers was exacerbating the chassis shortage. This is because export-bound containers are a key source of desperately needed chassis that have become the #1 choke-point, ever since shipping lines recently stopped providing a chassis for each container arriving to west coast ports,” an ILWU statement said.

Historically, shipping lines have owned the chassis on which containers are trucked to and from the ports. However, as a result of a need to cut costs, they have gradually exited the sector, leaving a shortage of equipment that has magnified the congestion caused by high numbers of import containers arriving. This is,  itself, the result of importers being anxious to receive cargo ahead of possible labour unrest as negotiations between the ILWU and PMA over a new master contract have dragged on for the past eight months.

In response, the PMA claims the congestion has been considerably exacerbated in the past two months by work slowdowns in the north-west ports of Seattle and Tacoma, and by local ILWU chapters in Los Angeles and Long Beach reducing the number of qualified crane drivers working the terminal yards. Before November, the PMA claimed that on average 110 yard crane operators per day would work the two ports. This has since been reduced to just 35 a day.

“The ILWU’s action in southern California goes against 15 years of precedent and targets precisely the skilled workers who are most essential to clearing congested terminals. By withholding an average of 75 yard crane drivers each day, the ILWU has stalled the movement of tens of thousands of containers,” it said in a statement.

As a result, the PMA has pulled gangs which would normally unload vessels at night and switched them to try to clear the backlog of containers in the yards – a move described as “illogical” by the ILWU.

“The union has noted that cancelling night shifts and reducing bulk operations will do nothing to ease the congestion crisis. The PMA appears to be abusing public ports and putting the economy at risk in a self-serving attempt to gain the upper hand at the bargaining table, and create the appearance of a crisis in order to score points with politicians in Washington,” it said.

The employers countered that argument by asking where containers coming off vessels could be put if there is no more room for them in the yards.

“Without   qualified  yard  crane   drivers,  who  play  a  critical  role  in  loading  and  offloading  cargo  containers  from  trucks,  the   congestion  problem  is  made far  worse at  terminal  yards.  In  the  face  of  near-gridlock,  it  makes   little  sense  to  maintain  the  pace  of  removing  containers  from  ships  when  there’s  almost  no   room  for  them  on  the  terminals.”

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