Dockworkers in Seattle Negotiating Labor Agreement Start Work Slowdown

In Seattle and Tacoma, management says that dockworkers have started a work slowdown, in their first large action since the contract expired this summer.

The two ports handle approximately 16 percent of containerized cargo on the West Coast.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union workers reduced container movement to between 10 and 18 per hour from the usual 25 to 35 per hour, according to the Pacific Maritime Association.

The timing couldn’t be more tenuous, as goods destined for holiday shoppers are unloaded at 29 ports along the coast. A lockout or strike could cost the United States economy an estimated $2 billion per day or more, says the National Retail Federation and National Association of Manufacturers.

According to Jonathan Gold, VP of Supply Chain and Customs Policy at the Retail Federation, “There was a lot of talk of being able to come to agreement back in August, and a lot of us were optimistic. The uncertainty is wreaking havoc with companies’ supply chains.”

The union, which currently boasts 20,000 members, has been working to come to agreement with the shippers since May on a contract to replace their six-year pact that expired. Spokesperson for the union, Craig Merrilees was not available for comment on whether or not the union endorsed or ordered the slowdown.

In a statement issued by the longshoremen, the members said that the union had pledged to maintain normal operations at the ports during all negotiations, stating, “PMA’s media offensive is designed to smear the union and to deflect responsibility from a growing congestion problem that is plaguing major West Coast ports.”

Wade Gates, a spokesperson for the Maritime Association, stated, “In Tacoma, the ILWU is not filling orders for skilled workers, including straddle carrier operators who are critical to terminal operations. This is like sending out a football team without the receivers or running backs. You can’t run the plays without them.”

Most terminals at the Port of Tacoma are still open; however, they are experiencing some back ups, according to Port Spokeswoman, Tara Mattina.

In late August, both sides in the negotiations announced a provisional deal on healthcare expenses, but did not disclose the terms of that deal. Also on the table is how to preserve jobs and retrain dockworkers as automation decreases the number of available positions, in addition to work rules and salaries.

Both management and the union had made it clear that they are working to avoid a lockout like the one in 2002 that lasted ten days and cost the U.S. economy approximately $1 billion per day.