West Coast port labor issues enter mediation, meat exports slow

West Coast port labor issues enter mediation, meat exports slow

National Pork Producers Council says reports exist of meat sitting at West Coast ports since Christmas

As West Coast port labor talks continue, the National Pork Producers Council this week sent a letter to leaders of the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union urging quick reconciliation to get meat exports back on track.

ILWU Longshoremen on West Coast ports have been working without a contract for several months after their agreement with the Pacific Maritime Association expired on July 1.

In NPPC's letter to Robert McEllrath, president of ILWU and James McKenna, PMA chairman, the group noted that the disagreement has spurred West Coast port congestion and forced port shutdowns.

National Pork Producers Council says reports exist of meat sitting at port since Christmas

PMA says that ILWU has been withholding qualified crane operators to slow the movement of containers at port. Since Nov. 3, PMA says, the Union has reduced these yard crane operator positions in Southern California by 67%.

ILWU claims, however, that recent moves by PMA to eliminate night shifts due to lack of space for returning empty and export containers is the top reason for crippled ports.

"Longshore workers are ready, willing and able to clear the backlog created by the industry's poor decisions," McEllrath said in a Jan. 13 press statement.

Related: West Coast Labor Strike Still Unsettled; Japan Concerned

To date, the ILWU and PMA have reached tentative agreements on health care and increases to pay guarantees, but discussion continues on pay increases and pension enhancements.

"The PMA has a sense of urgency to resolve these contract talks and get our ports moving again," PMA spokesperson Steve Getzug said. "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."

NPPC says the slowdowns are impacting meat exporters significantly, noting that there is no more room to store pork, beef, and poultry that was destined for export markets.

For example, if the situation at the Port of Oakland were resolved tomorrow, NPPC said, it would take 30-45 days to clear the backlog of containers. The group said meat companies may be forced to shut or slow processing lines, which could have "catastrophic consequences for livestock producers, with animals ready for market taking space on farms."

Related: Federal mediators to assist West Coast port labor talks

In addition, global customers are upset by the failure of U.S. companies to satisfy orders, NPPC said.

"More than 16,000 metric tons of U.S. pork and 10,000 metric tons of U.S. beef get exported to Asia each month. Some U.S. meat companies report they have containers of meat sitting at West Coast ports that were sent before Christmas," a recent NPPC Capital Update said.

"The short shelf life of meat and poultry make timely delivery critical. Last year, more than $6 billion worth of U.S. pork was exported, with about half of that going to markets in the Pacific Rim, making the West Coast port system a crucial part of the supply chain."

Late last year, sluggish U.S. potato exports to Japan were cited as the key reason for French fry rationing at the country's McDonald's restaurants. Limited hay, straw, alfalfa and lumber shipments to Japan also prompted the country to communicate its concerns to the USDA.

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