Update: On the Waterfront
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SPENCER MICHELS: Trucks lined up in the fog at West Coast docks attest to the fact that the ports are functioning, but the work is backed up, serious economic problems remain, and the labor dispute over a new contract for dock workers continues to rage. It was October 9, ten days after all 29 Pacific ports were closed because of an employer lockout, that members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the ILWU, went back to work under court order.
WORKER: So we’re happy to be back. We’re not happy to be back under this circumstances. (Cheers)
SPENCER MICHELS: A federal judge reopened the gates for 80 days, granting an injunction requested by the Department of Justice under the Taft-Hartley Act. Administration officials said they feared not being able to move goods in a time of war, and they wanted to head off a major business disruption during tough economic times. More than 200 ships filled with goods being imported to America had been anchored, idle, in bays and harbors at major ports like San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland and Seattle. Today, despite the reopening, about the same number of ships remain offshore, awaiting offloading. As a result, thousands of companies like Alpi International, which imports toys from Asia, have failed to receive their orders. Normally at this time of year, the warehouse would be full of boxes awaiting shipment to toy stores around the country. But Alpi’s toys are stranded at sea. Kathy Yett is general manager.
KATHY YETT, Manager, Toy Import Company: We have a container that’s stuck out in the harbor that we can’t get to our warehouse. And we need to ship these for Christmas orders. The show is actually starting very soon back up on TV again, and…
SPENCER MICHELS: The Osbourne Family Show.
KATHY YETT: The Osbourne Family Show, and we need to get the product in the stores while the license is hot, not later.
SPENCER MICHELS: What happens if the ship is a month or two late getting unloaded?
KATHY YETT: Then probably our customers will cancel their orders and they won’t want the merchandise anymore.
SPENCER MICHELS: Alpi managers complain that because of ship delays, prices for air freight have jumped 30 percent or more.
KATHY YETT: Companies like ours, a lot have turned from sea freight to air freight to try and get goods here to fill the orders. And so now there’s a space problem with the airlines.
SPENCER MICHELS: So everybody’s raising their prices because they can get it?
KATHY YETT: Absolutely. That’s what I think.
SPENCER MICHELS: Some economists were predicting that a port closure–strike or lockout– would result in economic losses of a billion dollars a day. A more recent study put the figure much lower. A few businesses have begun to recover. The General Motors/Toyota auto plant in the bay area, which couldn’t get parts and had closed, started up its assembly line as parts became available. But agriculture is still having problems getting the produce to market. The ILWU, with 10,500 members, has sent crews to the ports. They are unloading and loading cargo, as here at Marine Terminal Corporation in Oakland. But the backlog is huge. The port operators and the shipping lines, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association, claim the workers are not working as fast as they should. The association released a study Wednesday showing a 34 percent drop in productivity in Oakland, and 9 percent in Los Angeles. John Patchner, a PMA spokesman, says the union has provided too few workers.
JOHN PATCHNER, Pacific Maritime Association: Oh, at this particular terminal it has been down, yes, primarily because of a shortage of people with critical skills; clerks, as I said, whose job it is to locate that cargo, to get it off the vessel as soon as possible, because people have been arriving late.
SPENCER MICHELS: A ship like this carries 4,500 containers; larger ships up to 6,000. Shipping companies expect those ships to spend just 18 hours in port, but they say it’s taking much longer.
JOHN PATCHNER: When an ocean shipping company makes an investment like that, the… the important piece of economics is to keep the ship running. When a cargo ship sits idle, it is a huge financial drain on the owner or the operator of the vessel, and that’s the kind of pain that’s being caused by these normal, lower… by these lower than normal levels of productivity.
SPENCER MICHELS: Since the ports reopened, truck drivers complain they wait endlessly to pick up a load.
TRUCK DRIVER: Sometimes we’re held up two to three hours, and there’s no income.
SPOKESMAN: Give me your gate pass number.
SPOKESMAN: And your name?
SPOKESMAN: Who do you drive for?
SPENCER MICHELS: Union dock workers, including these Marine clerks, who use computers to keep track of cargo entering the port, are adamant: There is no slowdown. Dan Carter is an ILWU chief clerk.
SPENCER MICHELS: So when you hear the complaints from the PMA that there’s a slowdown, how do you react to that?
DAN CARTER, Chief ILWU Clerk: We’re working as hard as we can. We’re kind of bitter when we hear that. And we feel like we’ve worked as hard as we could before, and we’re working as hard as we can to dig out of here. And we turn around and we have problem after problem. It’s almost an unravelable mess.
SPENCER MICHELS: Trying to reduce the backlog of containers, employers have called for larger than normal crews of longshoremen. The union says it hasn’t always been able to meet those requests. Richard Mead is president of the San Francisco local.
RICHARD MEAD, President, ILWU Local 10: We have to send people that haven’t worked, or haven’t had any experience, out on the job. It was an issue yesterday. You have this wave of cargo coming in from the ships being backed up and you have this wave of cargo going out from the trucks being backed up, and they all meet right here on the docks. And it’s causing mass confusion, massive logistic problems. And the employers are turning around, trying to point at the ILWU and saying, “look, they’re slowing down, they’re slowing down,” when it’s of their own making.
SPENCER MICHELS: The union also says it is following safety rules in a very dangerous industry. While both sides argue over who is at fault for the mess they both agree exists, they have not been dealing with another major issue: That’s who will control the technology that ports are using more and more, and that’s been a stumbling block in negotiations that for now appear to be at an impasse. Meanwhile, federal mediators have been touring the ports to see firsthand what is going on. The Justice Department has asked both the union and management to provide documentation about the allegations of a slowdown by tomorrow. After that, government lawyers could go to court to force both sides to comply with the Taft-Hartley injunction, and unclog these ports.