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Chassis maintenance and repair likely main culprit of ILWU-PMA impasse

Bill Mongelluzzo, Senior Editor | Jan 05, 2015 7:40PM EST

Contract negotiations resumed today between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association after the holiday recess, but it appears that no significant progress will be made until both parties agree to compromise on the controversial issue of chassis maintenance and repair.

When negotiations hit an impasse in late October, rumors began to circulate that the chassis issue had risen toward the top of the list of the union’s demands. It is an important issue because chassis M&R work accounts for hundreds of ILWU jobs at West Coast ports.

Until this year, shipping lines purchased, maintained and repaired the chassis that harbor truckers use to dray containers to and from marine terminals. The lines are PMA members, so much, but not all, of the chassis M&R work at marine terminals is performed by ILWU mechanics.

The shipping lines this year sold most of their chassis to equipment-leasing companies. Those companies are not PMA members and therefore have no contractual relationship with the ILWU. The union is concerned that the companies will have chassis M&R work performed at off-dock sites with non-ILWU labor.

The ILWU is reportedly demanding that marine terminal operators require that ILWU mechanics inspect chassis before truckers are allowed to pull the chassis and containers from their facilities. The terminals and shipping lines say that since they no longer own the equipment, they are powerless to make such a demand.

Also, there is a potential problem in that some terminals have historically contracted with the International Association of Machinists to perform M&R work on chassis, so requiring chassis inspections by ILWU mechanics would create a conflict.

Neither the PMA nor the ILWU would comment on the chassis issue or any other topic involved in the contract negotiations. The ILWU did state today that “the industry decision to outsource chassis has created disastrous delays for shippers, contributed to massive congestion at the ports and is clearly a failure on every level.”

Although contract negotiations were in recess that past two weeks, both sides engaged in activities that have drawn national attention. The PMA in Southern California informed the ILWU on New Year’s Eve that employers on night shifts were reducing the number of work crews on vessel operations. Terminals, on the night shift only, are using one 45-man crew, or a gang, to unload containers from the ships, rather than using three gangs as they had been.

PMA explained that marine terminals in Los Angeles-Long Beach are so congested — operating at 90 percent or more utilization — that unloading more containers at night would push the terminals beyond the breaking point and would result in gridlock. A terminal is considered to be operating at capacity when it is at 80 percent utilization.

Since the terminals will continue to employ full gangs in the yards and at the terminal gates, the goal of employers on the night shifts is to move as many containers off the docks as possible to prepare for full vessel operations during the next day shift.

The ILWU, however, said the PMA’s decision would cause vessels to back up even more than they have been until now. In fact, the Marine Exchange of Southern California reported today that eight containerships were at anchor, which was two more than on Sunday.

Employers have also accused the ILWU in Southern California of withholding skilled operators of yard cranes, known an transtainers, and PMA said that is the single most important reason for terminal congestion in the largest U.S. port complex. PMA said the ILWU notified employers that beginning in early November, the union would dispatch only 35 yard crane operators each day rather than 110 as had been dispatched previously.

The ILWU today said the shortage of crane operators “is a consequence of PMA’s refusal –before the commencement of negotiations — to adequately train.” The PMA regularly rejected the union’s overtures for such training, and also refused to register new workers to perform critical UTR (yard tractor) and basic work,” the ILWU stated in a release.

PMA spokesman Steve Getzug said the training of yard crane operators has been on-going “for the past two years at least.” The training course lasts for 15 days. The ILWU said that placing a longshoreman without the proper training in a transtainer “is extremely dangerous to the potential operator and to everyone in the facility.” Employers note that the ILWU all year did not withhold any qualified crane operators until early November.

The ILWU has won the support of U.S. Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., in its war of words with PMA. Before negotiations recessed in December, the ILWU said the talks would go nowhere until shipping line executives from the PMA’s board of directors participated directly in the negotiations. As has been the case in past contracts, PMA negotiators have represented employers.

Hahn picked up on that theme in a statement Monday. She said that although PMA has requested federal mediation in the negotiations, nothing will be resolved until the PMA board of directors gets directly involved in the negotiations so “talks can resume in a more productive and expedient manner.”

Meanwhile, the PMA said ILWU work slowdowns continue up and down the coast, contributing to terminal congestion and vessels backing up at anchor. Port of Tacoma spokeswoman Tara Mattina confirmed today that productivity remained “slower than usual” and three vessels were at anchor in Commencement Bay.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at bmongelluzzo@joc.com and follow him on Twitter: @billmongelluzzo