Seattle cargo terminals close as coronavirus, trade war slow shipping; here’s what that means for workers

By Katherine Khashimova Long

The Seattle Times

So few shipping containers are coming from China that two Seattle marine cargo terminals shut their gates Friday, and one stopped all operations — the first time in five years a Seattle terminal has done so.

The combined effects of the coronavirus and the U.S.-China trade war have caused cargo volumes to fall by as much as 30% compared to this time last year, according to Bob Watters, senior vice president of terminal operator SSA Marine.

Trucking gates at Terminal 30 and Terminal 18, both managed by SSA Marine, were closed Friday. Both trucking and maritime operations at Terminal 18 will halt every Friday for the foreseeable future “due to ongoing volume declines,” says a statement on the website of The Northwest Seaport Alliance, which oversees the Port of Seattle and Port of Tacoma dockside operations.

The last time a terminal was closed was in 2015, when 200 environmentalists protested the arrival of a Royal Dutch Shell drilling rig at Terminal 5.

The immediate cause of the temporary shutdown was that several vessels canceled — or voided — their sailings in the past week, according to Zach Thomas, the director of the operations service center at The Northwest Seaport Alliance.

“The good news is that starting next week, there are fewer voids for the terminals,” he said. “In terms of how full of cargo will these vessels be? That is completely dependent on how quickly China can get production back to normal.”

In the meantime, the terminal closure means less work for truckers and longshore workers.

Longshore workers who are members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union will continue to receive a fraction of full-time pay, thanks to the terms of their contract with West Coast shippers.

But nonunion longshore workers — called casuals — have no such guarantee. Nor do truckers, who transport cargo into and out of the Port.

“If you’re a truck driver or a casual, you’re being devastated right now,” said longshore worker Abin Nellams. “Especially if you’re a truck driver. You’re in dire straits.”

That’s true, said truck driver Nebil Mohammed. He’s lucky that he’s already paid off his truck, unlike many drivers, but he still has monthly $1,100 insurance payments. Some truck drivers, many of whom are immigrants from East Africa and the West Indies, haven’t worked all week, he said.

“The Port has to save money, I don’t blame them,” he said. “But it’s just a ripple effect. There’s no safety net for us. No funding or relief. Nothing.”