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West Coast dockworkers to Russian cargo: Nyet!

Move largely symbolic as Biden bans oil, gas imports

Pier B at the Port of Long Beach, where containers and petroleum products intermingle. (Photo: Port of Long Beach)

Russian ocean cargoes are already having difficulty getting to market as industry and labor get ahead of official government sanctions with unofficial embargoes of their own.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, representing about 20,000 dockworkers at West Coast ports, said last week it will not load or unload any Russian cargo imports or exports. 

“With this action in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, we send a strong message that we unequivocally condemn the Russian invasion,” ILWU International President Willie Adams tweeted.

For the vast majority of cargo handled on the West Coast, the U.S. consignee pays for the freight and chances are high that the exporter in Russia has already been paid by the time the vessel has arrived, according to ocean shipping insiders.

A manager at ship charterer Minship GmbH responded online that the ILWU’s refusal doesn’t punish Russia because Russian shippers will have paid for the cargo. “All this does is financially hurt the U.S. buyers and leave the crew to suffer on board those ships left at limbo at sea.”

The ILWU’s threat won’t have a significant impact because the amount of Russian-related cargo that moves across West Coast docks is small. 

There were 7,371 twenty-foot equivalent units with Russian imports and exports that moved across the docks at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles in 2021, or four-tenths of 1% of all containerized cargo, according to data from the Long Beach port authority. 

Oil bulk imports from Russia amounted to about 2% to 3% of total imports at the Port of Long Beach last year. Combined container and bulk trade represents two-tenths of 1% of all two-way volume with Russia at the Port of Los Angeles, spokesman Philip Sanfield said.

“While a relatively small share of the port’s trade is with Russia, the Port of Long Beach nevertheless stands in solidarity with the ILWU and the city of Long Beach,” the Port of Long Beach said in a statement.

But longshoremen and the ports won’t even get an opportunity to reject oil cargo anymore because President Joe Biden on Tuesday announced a ban on Russian oil and gas imports.

The International Longshore Association, which represents longshore workers on the East Coast, issued a statement on Feb. 25 condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “murderous assault” on Ukraine, but has not embargoed Russian cargo.

Last week, dockworkers at a terminal in Kent, England, refused to unload a shipment of liquefied natural gas from Russia, The Guardian reported. The tanker Boris Vilkitsky was diverted to the Port of Montoir-de-Bretagne in France.

Ocean carriers have already been turning down Russian business to avoid legal liability from sanctions and potential reputational damage.

The ILWU could soon be in the headlines if collective bargaining with terminal employers doesn’t result in a contract well before the June 30 expiration of the current deal. Any uncertainty about maintaining productivity or actual slow downs in moving containers could result in cargo diversion to other ports and more congestion than already exists because of pandemic-related infrastructure and labor constraints. Public sentiment could influence the talks. On one side are private port operators that are largely owned by foreign ocean carriers making unusually large profits the past two years. But ILWU members are well–paid tradesmen and Americans who have dealt with supply chain delays and record inflation may lose patience if a labor dispute creates more economic dislocation, especially as the Ukraine crisis sends the price of oil and other commodities way up.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]