The Weakest Link?

The AAPA’s America’s Ports: Gateways to Global Trade stated that: “For some ports, the weakest link in their logistics chain is at their back doors, where congested roadways or inadequate rail connections to marine terminals cause delays and raise transportation costs.” Admittedly, that’s a weak link, but those faced daily with congestions and inadequacies in surface transportation see things differently. They correctly point out that had they been properly forewarned by port authorities with respect to the rate of annual growth, then certainly things would be running more smoothly in their domains.

But again, in fairness to port authorities, their planning has depended on those international consulting firms that are expected to have all the answers. The consulting firms, however, can only produce information by relying upon data gleaned from retailers, brokers, carriers, terminal operators, truckers, the railroads, and from the whole supply chain, in fact. But there is no crystal ball available. Not to the consultants nor to anyone else. The result, of course, is that the industry is repeatedly put in the position of reacting rather than acting. Everyone in every phase of container transport is playing the game of “catch up”… and in some places it’s already critical.

For example, look at what truck drivers are enduring. Look carefully at the burdens they’re required to shoulder, and consider the possible consequences of their reactions. Rick Knapp, the GM of Virginia International Terminals stated at the Trans-Atlantic Maritime Conference that: “The Achilles Heel of the maritime industry is the truckers’ ability to deliver product to the door.” Events testify to the accuracy of that statement and dire warnings have been issued in the past by Labor and Industrial Relations authorities. Recall, if you will, the words of Michael B. Belzer, of the University of Michigan’s Institute of Labor and Relations. In February 2000, at a seminar sponsored by the Transportation Research Board, he cited the low wages, long hours, unsafe working conditions and recent rise (even back then) in fuel costs. He went on to emphasize that because harbor truck drivers are paid by the trip, rather than by the hour, and because they were not being compensated for the time spent waiting at congested marine terminals, many owner-operators have left the industry and have contributed to the severe driver shortage at our seaports. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why there is a labor shortage”, he said.

We expect to be forewarned so that we can be forearmed. That has been the demand (or alibi?) from each segment of the supply chain, but could any warning be clearer than the one issued by Mr. Belzer more than four years ago? “Low wages, long hours, piece work and unsafe working conditions. You have working conditions that I believe can be characterized as sweatshops … If the problem is not resolved soon, you won’t have to worry about gridlock because there won’t be any trucks on the road … I cannot comprehend why people don’t respond to this as a national crisis”.

Could non-union owner-drivers be the weakest link in our rusty chain?