Worries of US West Coast extremes

Hard work: Portland's workers are making life difficult for ICTSI Hard work: Portland's workers are making life difficult for ICTSI
Industry Database

Dockworkers strike at the ICTSI terminal in Portland, while the employers association on the US West Coast says there should be no problems in reaching a new contract agreement this year.

But somewhere between these two extremes – Portland workers acting irresponsibly to force ICTSI to shut down and the employers wishing away reality – is the actuality of labour relations on the West Coast.

Moral and economic justification are with the employers (in essence the terminal operators), but that counts for nothing.

The dockers have good reason to fear that their existence is being eroded through automation and fewer ship calls as vessels get larger. So they are trying to draw a line in the sand and placing faith in the White House administration looking the other way if threats of a lockout are made.

But they also have the carriers and shippers against them. Despite rhetoric about an improving economy, profit margins are perilous for everyone and terminal customers are already looking hard north and south of the US border. Ever tighter environmental rules, especially in California, add to profit margin pressures and gritted teeth are much in evidence when shippers discuss the West Coast.

The Portland antics are evidence of what is going through dockers’ minds. The dispute is really about ICTSI getting an agreement with the state and the port to use non-ILWU workers. The company is said to be close to selling up, which would be a huge blow as its operational efficiency and policies have proved effective. 

If the dockers win there, the ILWU will probably develop a Napoleonic complex and believe it can turn the clock back 20 years and intimidate the whole West Coast all over again. That would jar the optimism of the terminal operators.

Automation and efficiency are of secondary importance in the manoeuvering over a new contract.  Disputes over container chassis ownership (chassis breakdowns are a worry because no one wants to pay for repairs) are affecting productivity without any involvement of the dockworker union. The industry is also grappling with the economics of the new mega-alliances.

Whatever the result of the negotiations, the line in the sand will have to be shifted in favour of the employers if the West Coast wants to keep its dominance.

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