West Coast dockworkers face huge backlog as job action ends

Written By Unknown on Minggu, 22 Februari 2015 | 22.39

Dockworkers along the West Coast began the months-long task Saturday of clearing seaports of cargo that was caught up in a contract feud between their union and employers.

Parked off the Southern California coast is a flotilla of ships bulging with thousands of tractor-trailer-sized containers that hold a shopper's delight of goods — which already would be on store shelves but for a labour dispute that has disrupted international trade.

The leader of the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's largest, said it would take three months "to get back a sense of normalcy."

The volume of cargo that West Coast dockworkers and their employers must clear, now that they've reached a tentative contract agreement Friday evening, is staggering. Put in a line, the containers would stretch 925 kilometres . Stacked up, they'd rise nearly 400 kilometres — about the orbiting altitude of the International Space Station.

And those are just the ships waiting for dock space at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. There are smaller, though substantial, backups in San Francisco Bay and Washington's Puget Sound. The Port of Oakland reckoned it would take up to eight weeks to recover.

With labour peace restored to the West Coast waterfront, dockworkers got to work Saturday night loading and unloading the massive ocean-going vessels.

In recent weeks, companies that operate marine terminals cut night, weekend and holiday shifts, saying they did not want to pay overtime for what amounted to a "strike with pay." That was a reference to what they said was a worker slowdown that began in November. The union said longshoremen were abiding by all safety rules.

It was the kind of brinksmanship familiar from past negotiations between two sides with a history of conflict that dates to the killing of striking dockworkers during the Great Depression.

While the ports never shut down fully, the problems in the supply chain were acute — and growing. All told, West Coast ports handle about $1 trillion worth of cargo annually. The contract deal will, eventually, restore the free flow of cargo across docks at 29 seaports that handle about one-quarter of U.S. international trade.

The task facing workers Saturday was immense.

While there are about 30 ships anchored just off the coast awaiting dock space — a visual reminder of the extent of the backlog — there are perhaps two dozen more hanging beyond the horizon and still more slogging across the Pacific, said Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles. U.S. exports, particularly from farms, also are waiting to reach Asian markets.

'I suspect that people will be getting a lot of overtime in the days ahead.'- U.S. Labour Secretary Thomas Perez

"I suspect that people will be getting a lot of overtime in the days ahead," said U.S. Labour Secretary Thomas Perez, whom President Barack Obama dispatched to San Francisco this week to push negotiators to a resolution after nine months of bargaining.

The tentative contract still must be approved by the 13,000-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union's rank-and-file, as well as the full Pacific Maritime Association of employers. A vote by union members could come in April. It was not immediately clear when employers would vote.

Neither side released details, but in a recent letter, maritime association president James McKenna outlined what he called employers' "last, best and final" offer. It included maintenance of nearly no-cost health coverage, an $11,000 increase in the maximum pension benefit to $91,000, and a $1-per-hour wage increase over each of the five years.

Though dockworker wages vary by job and skill level, the average exceeds $50 per hour, according to the maritime association, which represents ocean-going shipping lines and the companies that load and unload cargo at port terminals.

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