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As West Coast Labor Disputes Heat Up, Shippers Turn to Ocean Container Tracking Software

November 30, 2023

In a grim sign of the state of West Coast labor relations, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which see a combined 30% of the nation’s container traffic, were briefly shuttered during the night shift on Thursday, April 6 and the day shift on Friday, April 7. While the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, or ILWU, Local 13 blamed the work stoppage on “[...] union members spending time with families for the religious holiday,” according to reporting from FreightWaves, it’s broadly accepted that the stoppage came as a result of heightening tensions between the labor union and the Pacific Maritime Alliance, or PMA, which represents the terminals at Los Angeles and Long Beach. 

While this work stoppage spanned only two shifts, it points to a significant change in the relationship between the ILWU, which represents some 13,000 port workers from California to Washington, and the PMA, which means the interests of some of the ocean transportation industry’s most influential companies, including Maersk, CMA-CGM, and MSC. This work stoppage demonstrates that for the ILWU, whose workers have been operating without a contract since July 1, 2023, enough is enough. 

With no end to the labor struggle between the ILWU and the PMA in sight, today’s ocean container shippers are under pressure to build resilience in the face of a volatile West Coast Labor landscape. By going through the facts, players, and stakes of the West Coast labor negotiations, ocean container shippers can learn how to use innovations in ocean container tracking to build the flexibility they need to navigate the turbulent waters of the West Coast in 2023. 

Key Players: The ILWU and the PMA

In complicated labor negotiations, it can be challenging to know who’s who. By breaking down the key players involved in the high-stakes labor negotiations on the West Coast, ocean container shippers can learn what’s at stake in the negotiations between the ILWU and the PMA. 

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA)

The Pacific Maritime Association represents the companies that do business along the West Coast, primarily carriers and terminal operators. The association represents the interests of 72 businesses, among them the largest carriers in the world, including:

  • Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) 
  • Maersk, LLC. 
  • Hapag-Lloyd AG
  • Yangming Marine Transport Corporation

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU)

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, or ILWU, is the labor union representing dockworkers along the West Coast. According to the union, the ILWU represents some 42,000 members at ports throughout California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and Oregon. 

The Conflict: What’s Behind the Conflict Between the ILWU and the PMA?

Since the expiration of the previous contract between the PMA and ILWU on July 1, 2022, the two groups have claimed steady progress on negotiations, with both parties claiming in a Feb. 23 joint statement that “The parties have reached a tentative agreement on certain key issues, including health benefits, and remain committed to resolving remaining issues as expeditiously as possible.” According to reporting from The Wall Street Journal, some issues that are yet to be resolved include processes around job assignments, health benefits, and the extent to which the ports can adopt automated handling technologies. 

Despite the lack of major disruption and negotiations seemingly progressing toward a new contract, container volumes have shifted significantly toward other ports due to the lurking specter of labor issues on the West Coast. On April 18, Descartes released data showing that the West Coast has lost approximately 1 million TEUs to the Gulf Coast and East Coast each year since 2021, with Gulf Coast ports being the largest beneficiary. Industry Expert Mike Schuler, writing in GCaptain, said of the shift seen in the Descartes data, “[...] this shift has been exacerbated by port congestion and now growing uncertainty surrounding negotiations between West Coast port employers and dockworker unions. With no end in sight to the labor talks, it’s anyone’s guess when or if West Coast ports will regain their share of imports lost during the pandemic.”

The lack of public discussion of the negotiations by the parties involved, mutually agreed to by the PMA and ILWU, has been adhered to mainly allay ocean container shippers’ fears around negotiations — and a desire to limit the already large volume bleed seen on the West Coast. Though not explicitly, that silence was broken on April 6th. 

The Consequences: What Will Happen as a Result of The Good Friday Work Stoppage? 

Although the work stoppage lasted only 24 hours, it served as an important turning point in the negotiations between the ILWU and PMA, with many ocean container shippers sure to see the work stoppage as a forerunner of difficult times to come. As a result of ocean container shippers’ now-validated anxieties around the negotiations between the ILWU and PMA, many ocean container shippers are likely to continue shifting freight to the East, only now with a newfound sense of urgency to find a home for vulnerable shipments. 

This reinvigorated shift to the east will result in lower volumes at already volume-starved West Coast ports and a continued rush for capacity at fast-growing East Coast ports. Ocean container shippers will need help finding drayage and warehouse capacity as volumes explode in the east. 

With volumes falling into an ever-deeper hole on the West Coast and an ever-rising capacity surge overtaking the East, ocean container shippers are under pressure to find innovative ways to adapt to the new ocean container transportation landscape. 

With Pressure Rising on the West Coast, Ocean Container Shippers Turn to Ocean Freight Visibility

As the conflict between the ILWU and the PMA continues to escalate, ocean container shippers are searching for solutions. In response to unprecedented volatility in a high-stakes ocean container transportation landscape, today’s ocean container shippers are turning to ocean container tracking software to build resilience. 

Real-Time Container Tracking Anytime, Anywhere

As the Good Friday work stoppage showed, labor issues can stop a supply chain in its tracks anytime, anywhere. When a work stoppage puts a sudden stop to the supply chain, it’s vital that ocean container shippers have on-demand access to the precise location of their high-stakes ocean container freight. 

However, the consequences of a portside work stoppage don’t stop outside the terminal gates. Ocean container shippers can ensure resilience wherever labor issues strike – whether on the rails, road, or the high seas – by choosing a real-time container tracking software provider that offers intermodal tracking. 

Automated Exception Alerts Delivered Across Operations

Ocean container tracking operations are important, but nobody can watch a blue dot all day. That’s why, for ocean container shippers facing a volatile transportation industry, automated ocean container exception alerts are a vital aid in navigating an unpredictable transportation industry. Automated ocean container tracking alerts provide ocean container shippers with instant awareness of exceptions within the supply chain, including:

Delivered to ocean container transportation stakeholders throughout the supply chain, automated exception alerts delivered through a streamlined software interface provide ocean container shippers with the knowledge that if and when a labor issue disrupts their supply chain, they’ll be the first to know. 

Cloud-Based API & TMS Integration to Optimize Ocean Container Operations

While ocean container tracking and automated ocean container exception alerts are vital tools to navigate the turbulent waters of an unpredictable labor situation, these ocean container visibility assets are only as valuable as they are accessible. With ocean container tracking software through an API (or application programming interface), ocean container shippers can easily access ocean container tracking assets wherever the supply chain takes them. 

In a Volatile Industry, Ocean Container Shippers Turn to Ocean Freight Visibility Through OpenTrack

As ocean container shippers attempt to navigate the highs and lows of the ILWU and PMA negotiations, it’s clear that the usual supply chain management strategies are falling short. With ocean container tracking software from OpenTrack, shippers can access a robust toolkit of ocean container visibility assets, including:

  • Real-Time Container Tracking to ensure visibility anytime, anywhere.
  • Automated Exception Alerts to keep you and your stakeholders in the know.
  • Cloud-Based API & TMS Integrations to maintain visibility whenever and wherever you need it. 

Book a demo with OpenTrack, and see how freight visibility made simple can help you build an agile and resilient supply chain today.

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