Longshore Workers Have Answer For Clearing Ship Congestion

  • 01/22/2015
  • Reporters Desk

Let Us Do Our Jobs

By Robert (“Bobby”) Olvera Jr., President of ILWU Local 13

The Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s busiest container Harbor facility and second-ranked Port of Long Beach, handle about 40 percent of America’s imports, with an estimated $1 billion in cargo moving through the ports every day.

Hundreds of thousands of jobs in the region are connected to the two ports.

Terms and conditions of employment for longshore and marine clerk labor at the ports are governed by a contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) which is comprised of stevedoring, shipping, and marine terminal companies. The labor contract expired in July 2014. A new contract is under negotiation.

While dockworkers have continued to work in good faith without a contract since July 1, 2014, PMA has launched a very public attack campaign leaving many people (and many in the media) under the false impression that congestion problems at the ports are a direct result of job actions taken by ILWU. In reality, the problems at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are a result of mismanagement by PMA and its member companies that began before the 2008 labor contract expired.

Within the past six years, port congestion has steadily increased as cargo ships have more than doubled in size and capacity. According to World News (WN.com), the size of cargo vessels crossing the Pacific Ocean have increased in size from two football fields to the equivalent of four football fields.

These megaships require up to eight “gangs” or crews, to handle cargo. However, since July 2014 (when the labor agreement with ILWU expired), PMA, in a mind-boggling move, reduced the number of gangs assigned to large cargo vessels to three, constituting a 75 percent reduction of workers. To make matters even worse, on New Year’s Eve 2014, PMA announced an additional reduction in the workforce, assigning only one gang per ship during the night shift. That translates to reducing the number of crews assigned to unloading cargo by a staggering 87 percent. More recently, on Jan.13, 2015, night crews serving vessels were dropped by PMA altogether.

As a direct result of PMA’s actions, more than 7,000 full-time longshore workers face steeply reduced hours of work. In addition, about 8,000 part-time or “casual” longshore workers will have little to no work available to them. Such drastic cuts in the workforce not only impact the families of the workers whose hours have been cut, but add to congestion at the port. This congestion financially impacts thousands of local and national businesses that rely on the ports to unload their merchandise in a timely manner.

Unfortunately, mismanagement by PMA and its member companies extends well beyond reductions in the workforce. The mismanagement extends to safety issues as well. For years, ILWU, Local 13 (the longshore local union operating in the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach) has requested that PMA provide workers with training to operate cranes and improve training facilities for crane operators. These requests have fallen on deaf ears.

In June 2014, prior to the expiration of the labor contract, ILWU Local 13 and the ILWU locals representing marine clerks and foremen requested a meeting with PMA officials to discuss a growing number of near-fatal accidents at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach due to inadequate training of crane operators. PMA never granted the meeting. Instead, in November 2014, PMA blamed the congestion at the ports on the union’s insistence on dispatching trained and certified crane operators. In reality, PMA caused the congestion as a result of only providing two instructors for the hundreds of ILWU, Local 13 members waiting to receive their crane operator training and certification.

Operable chassis shortages also played a major role in slowing operations at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Cargo containers do not have wheels and must be mounted on a chassis in order to get to warehouses and distribution centers. Beginning several years ago, many PMA member companies made an ill-considered operational decision to sell off many of their chassis to equipment leasing companies. As a result, marine terminals often lack the necessary chassis to move cargo off the docks. Further, certain PMA member companies have inexplicably refused to let union members repair piles of inoperable chassis that the companies still control, further reducing the number of operable chassis available to clear the congested ports.

While PMA has engaged in a public relations campaign blaming ILWU for the problems at the ports, the congestion of cargo ships and containers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are directly related to mismanagement by marine terminal operators and the shipping lines they service.  PMA and its member companies are using a “cut and criticize” strategy. They continue to cut crews, cut training and cut repair work and then turn around and criticize ILWU when operations are negatively impacted by those cuts.

ILWU, Local 13, has repeatedly told PMA and port officials that – contract or no contract – we stand ready to ramp up training, fix inoperable equipment and fully staff crews to handle cargo. We are calling on PMA to join us in our commitment to clear the congestion at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Robert (Bobby) Olvera, Jr. is the president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 13. He represents more than 20,000 part-time and full-time longshore workers, who discharge cargo at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Local 13 is the largest local on the West Coast and works the largest and busiest port in North America.

Olvera, a third generation longshoreman, became registered in the industry in 1989.

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