Port Standstill Spells Trouble for US Farm Prices

US – Union tensions have halted meat exports from west coast seaports because of a struggle over worker contracts, with major implications for beef, chicken and pork trade.
calendar icon 27 January 2015
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Nine months of stalemate has seen the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), a negotiation and administration group, lock horns with the International Longshoreman and Warehouse Union (ILWU), a worker representative.

Union action has halted an average of 75 cranes each day, which the PMA attributed to the stalling of tens of thousands of crates. In California, crane workers have fallen 67 per cent.

On 12 January, the PMA blasted the ILWU for bringing terminal operations to “the brink of gridlock”.

In a statement, the PMA said: “Since late October 2014, the ILWU has crippled what were fully productive terminals in the Pacific Northwest and Oakland, and exacerbated a difficult congestion issue at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach by intentionally withholding dozens of essential skilled workers each shift for the past 10 weeks.”

“The PMA has a sense of urgency to resolve these contract talks and get our ports moving again,” said PMA spokesperson Steve Getzug. “Unfortunately, it appears the Union’s motivation is to continue slowdowns in an attempt to gain leverage in the bargaining. The ILWU slowdowns and the resulting operational environment are no longer sustainable.”

Speaking in December, ILWU President, Bob McEllrath, he would “not roll over” for the employers” and was reported to have said there were three main challenges that have triggered congestion at pacific coast ports.

Firstly, he said work which was done by longshore workers has been outsourced. New companies has also been created, giving roles formerly undertaken by ILWU workers. The third point was a failure to train workers to improve safety and protect the ILWU jurisdiction.

ILWU communications said: “Other factors contributing to massive congestion are increased container volumes, use of new “mega-ships” carrying up to 14,000 containers, shortages of port truckers, tighter railroad capacity and a host of other factors that have caused the crisis due to corporate greed and poor planning.”

A degree of progress was made through 2014, namely on health benefits, although Mr McEllrath admitted “there’s still a lot more to do”.

Impact at meat industry level has the potential to become a crisis, wrote Ron Plain, University of Missouri, in his latest livestock outlooks.

“The potential loss in export value is huge and is a big threat to farm prices,” his hog outlook said.

“Roughly 22 per cent of US pork production, 10 per cent of beef and 20 per cent of chicken are exported each month, with most going out from the west coast.”

Meanwhile, the ILWU has highlighted displays of support and solidarity within the Union framework.

Full backing has been offered by the International Dockworkers Council, whose members have participated in negotiations, as well as the International Transport Workers Federation.

Michael Priestley

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