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Some Progress in West Coast Port Contract Talks, but Congestion Causing Major Problems for Exporters

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As congestion worsened this week in major West Coast ports, labor contract negotiations continued between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

The first positive news in several months was reported Jan. 26, when PMA announced that it had reached a tentative agreement with ILWU on chassis maintenance and repair, which had been a contentious issue in the contract talks. This is the first time either party has cited notable progress in the negotiations since an Aug. 26 joint announcement stating that the two sides had reached an agreement on health care benefits.

Announcement of the chassis maintenance agreement fueled some speculation that a new contract between PMA and ILWU is close at hand. While exporters obviously hope this is the case, it is important to note that similar optimism was voiced following completion of the health care benefits agreement – and that was more than five months ago.

On Jan. 23, PMA released detailed port operations data illustrating the decline in productivity that is contributing to severe congestion in major West Coast ports. The report shows a dramatic decline in crane operator shifts in Los Angeles-Long Beach beginning in late October. It also shows declines in crane productivity ranging from 10 percent to nearly 40 percent (compared to historical averages) in the ports of Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma.

This week USMEF was one of 93 agricultural and food industry organizations to sign an open letter urging ILWU and PMA to resolve their differences as quickly as possible and for the federal government to consider all available remedies to bring the impasse to an end.