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Union Dispute Slows Work at Port of Portland

by Steven DuBois, Associated Press
News-Register, June 20, 2012

(Ross William Hamilton) Terminal 6, usually stacked full of containers, has relatively few boxes waiting for shipping abroad, as steamship lines bypass Portland because of labor disputes. PORTLAND -- A seemingly minor dispute over which union workers should plug-in and unplug refrigerated shipping containers has ignited a two-week slowdown at the Port of Portland, disrupting businesses throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Truck drivers were backed up for a couple miles Tuesday as longshoremen reportedly worked at a sharply reduced pace at the Port's Terminal 6, the smallest of the six container-shipping ports on the West Coast. Moreover, a cargo ship scheduled to arrive in Portland on Wednesday has decided to drop its load elsewhere.

"It's a huge, huge headache. Everything's just piling up," said Trevor Smith, chief operating officer of Terminal Transfer Inc., a transportation and warehousing company that trucks numerous imported goods from the port.

The slowdown affecting the many companies that rely on imports and exports involves a dispute between members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers over who should maintain the refrigerated shipping containers, known as reefers.

The job requires the equivalent of two full-time workers.

The electrical workers have handled the job for decades under a collective bargaining agreement with the Port of Portland. The question of whether they should continue has arisen because the Port decided in 2010 to lease Terminal 6 operations to a private firm, ICTSI Oregon Inc.

Now that a private company is in control, the longshoremen, who deny they are working slowly, say the two jobs must switch to them because of the bargaining agreement between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association that covers all West Coast ports.

"The union jurisdiction is consistent along the whole West Coast, and ICTSI's attempt to pick and choose its own exemptions threaten the 80-year collective bargaining relationship between the ILWU and the PMA and the industry stability that comes with it, " Leal "Leo" Sundet, ILWU coast committeeman, said in an email message Tuesday.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Michael Simon will conduct two back-to-back hearings on the matter. In one, the National Labor Relations Board will seek a temporary restraining order to halt the slowdown. In the other, the longshoremen will ask the judge to order ICTSI to hire them for the contested jobs.

Ronald Hooks, regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Seattle, said the NLRB, though trying to stop the slowdown, has yet to rule on which union is entitled to the jobs. He said a decision from Washington D.C. is expected in a matter of weeks.

While the various factions await court action, millions of dollars in goods remain clogged up at Terminal 6 and at least one shipping company has decided to avoid the mess.

Hapag-Lloyd, a German steamship line, alerted freight forwarders that the cargo vessel Cape Mayor would not make its scheduled trip to Portland, an action first reported by The Oregonian newspaper. The Portland-bound containers are expected to arrive in Oakland, Calif., where they will then be transported by truck or rail.

Smith, from Terminal Transfer Inc., said the company's 25 to 30 trucks are hauling about 20 percent of the typical daily loads, and drivers are waiting three to seven hours to get into and out of the port, instead of the usual 45 to 75 minutes.

Smith said his drivers have told him that the lift operators who load the containers onto trucks are basically driving at idle speeds.

"We've dealt with problems with those guys in the past, and it's never lasted this long," Smith said. "We would be better off if they just closed down, because then we're not having to have deal with all this mess."

Steven DuBois, Associated Press
Union Dispute Slows Work at Port of Portland
News-Register, June 20, 2012

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