Union Workers Skip Shifts Closing Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles

California port stoppage
Southern California's ports are closed for a second shift due to crane operators and divers not showing up for their shifts (Long Beach file photo)

Published Apr 7, 2023 2:12 PM by The Maritime Executive

Crane operators and drivers of cargo-handling equipment failed to show up for work starting with Thursday, April 6, evening shift effectively bringing the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to a standstill. Neither the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the employers of dockworkers, nor the ILWU Local 13 is calling it a job action, but the stoppage continued into Friday.

Maersk issued a customer advisory reporting that two or three of its ships might be immediately impacted at the Port of Los Angeles. They wrote, “no operations were performed on the night shift. Every terminal in the harbor canceled all vessel, yard, rail, and gate operations for the night shift with the uncertainty of not knowing if they would be able to resume for Friday's 1st shift.”

A PMA spokesperson told Bloomberg that the ILWU Local 13 again withheld labor for the Friday morning shift. Some workers had come to the terminal for their assigned shifts last night, but because there were an insufficient number of personnel, the terminals were forced to send them away and suspend work. 

In the customer advisory, Maersk noted that Thursday “marked the last day of the ILWU Local 13 President’s term. The new President was sworn in and has begun his term.” It is unclear if the action has anything to do with the change of leadership at the union’s local or the Good Friday religious holiday. Today was scheduled to be a normal work day for the ports, although Sunday, April 9, Easter Sunday, is scheduled as a no work day due to the religious holiday.

The Marine Exchange of Southern California, which manages vessels traffic for the ports, said as of midday on Friday, one containership did not proceed to port as scheduled and is loitering to the west as the captain chose not to anchor. They are advising other inbound ships to work with their destination terminals to determine if there is a reasonable expectation that they can go to a berth in the next three days. The port of Los Angeles’ Control Tower Signal Report reflects that 10 vessels are on dock. They show three containerships scheduled to arrive today at the port, two more on April 9, and a sixth vessel on April 11.

The union issued a statement late on Friday saying that "several thousand union members attend the monthly meeting," which took place Thursday evening. In addition, they said on Friday that workers who celebrated the religious holiday had taken the time to be with their families. "Longshore workers at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach (Ports) are still hard at work and remain committed to moving the nation’s cargo," the ILWU Local 13 said, while the PMA contended that workers failing to show up for their shifts was a result of a "coordinated action." 

The PMA and the union have been in contract talks since the prior contract expired on July 1, 2022, with both sides remaining mostly quiet on the status of the talks. Their last communication was in February 2023 saying that they were hopeful and that both sides remained committed to resolving the contract. Port officials have repeatedly said that the uncertainty and the potential for disruptions are hurting the operations at both ports with carriers and shippers actively diverting to U.S. Gulf Coast and East Coast ports as alternatives. They have called for the two sides to resolve the issues quickly for the health of the ports.

Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that union members in the ports had quietly begun refusing to stagger the timing of their meal breaks. Each shift receives a break period but under the contract provisions, they are to be staggered so that enough personnel remain at work to continue operations. Work was reportedly being forced to stop causing backlogs as dockworkers had stopped spreading out their breaks. The PMA acknowledged the issue and said to reporters that it was unable to arbitrate because they are currently without a contract. 

Maersk told customers that it was seeking “more clarity on the disruption and duration." The PMA in its statement confirmed the stoppage and the issue of staggering shifts during meal periods. They wrote, "These actions undermine confidence in West Coast ports, and threaten to further accelerate the diversion of discretionary cargo." There was no indication of if the workers might remain off the job or what actions are currently being taken to resolve the stoppage.