Shipping containers at Port of Los Angeles

Port employers on the US west coast are to halt vessel loading and unloading for four of the five next days, as the congested facilities slide closer to complete shutdown amid a protracted industrial dispute.

The shutdown on Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday follows a two-day shutdown last weekend and means that, by the end of Monday, terminals will have been operating normally on only four of the past 10 days.

The stoppages come amid apparent unofficial go-slows by workers at terminals at ports in California, Oregon and Washington unhappy at employers’ failure to agree a new contract to replace one that expired on July 1. On Wednesday, there were 14 vessels waiting off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach — the region’s two busiest facilities — to load and unload.

The slowdowns have caused considerable problems for both importers and exporters in the US. Japan’s Nissan and Toyota said they had been forced to airfreight parts for their US car manufacturing operations from Asia to circumvent the port hold-ups.

The shutdowns are likely further to extend the already considerable wait for some vessels to enter port. One vessel — the YM Fountain — has been waiting off the Port of Tacoma, in Washington, since January 25 to enter port.

As it did last weekend, the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents employers, said it was halting work to avoid paying premium rates for weekend and holiday working when relatively little work was being done. Thursday is the Lincoln’s Birthday holiday, while Monday is the Presidents’ Day holiday, marking George Washington’s birthday.

The atmosphere surrounding the contract negotiations appears to have soured considerably after the International Longshore and Warehouse Union demanded the right to dismiss arbitrators who mediate in contract disputes. The PMA regards the demand as unworkable since it would deter arbitrators from ever finding against the union.

The PMA said on February 4 that it had made a “comprehensive contract offer” designed to bring the talks to a conclusion. The PMA said its offer would boost terminal employees’ average annual pay from $147,000 to $162,000 over five years, increase workers’ maximum pensions and leave healthcare terms intact. The PMA warned then that within five to 10 days congestion would be so severe terminals would have to stop working entirely.

“The ILWU responded with demands they knew we could not meet, and continued slowdowns that will soon bring west coast ports to gridlock,” the employer body said. “What they’re doing amounts to a strike with pay, and we will reduce the extent to which we pay premium rates for such a strike.”

The ILWU said the PMA’s version of its demand mischaracterised its position but did not say what its position was.

Robert McEllrath, the ILWU’s president, said the shutdown was an effort to put economic pressure on his members and gain leverage in the talks.

“It seems to us that the employers are trying to sabotage negotiations,” Mr McEllrath said. “They are not just hurting workers, families and communities. What our employers are doing is bad for the industry and the US economy.”

The congestion has pushed importers to use new routes, including routes via rail and the Canadian ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert, to reach US consumers. However, Canadian Pacific, one of Canada’s two big railroads, announced on Tuesday that its drivers had given notice of their intention to strike from February 15 if pay negotiations were unsuccessful.

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