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Nov 6, 2014 10:59 PM

Strife at West Coast ports threatens holiday goods

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) Labor strife at major West Coast seaports is threatening the delivery of holiday goods that consumers expect and retailers need to turn a profit.

Until this week, dockworkers and their employers were negotiating a new contract with little of the drama that characterized past talks.

No longer. The association representing companies that ship cargo in and out of 29 West Coast ports and manage containers once onshore is accusing the dockworkers union of deliberately slowing work to gain bargaining leverage. Their contract expired in July.

The Pacific Maritime Association said Thursday that the union isn't dispatching enough workers at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to load containers efficiently onto trucks and trains. On Monday, the association said crane operators with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Washington state are moving cargo at half-speed.

According to U.S. trade data, cargo worth $892 billion crossed the docks from San Diego to Seattle in 2013, accounting for much of the trade with Asia. A lockout in 2002 cost the economy billions of dollars.

Cargo has been moving slowly for weeks through Los Angeles and Long Beach, by far the busiest ports in the nation. Both sides agree a big problem is a lack of truck chassis that carry containers off the docks and across the nation.

Add in what employers termed a work slowdown, and the twin ports are approaching "the brink of gridlock," the association said in a statement.

A spokesman for the union did not deny a slowdown, but he also blamed employers.

Cargo flow is gummed up because companies can't provide enough truck chassis to meet demand and because truckers who move containers from the docks to distribution centers are not showing up due to low pay, union spokesman Craig Merrilees said.

"The problems are industry caused, self-inflicted and serious," he said.

Past negotiations have seen work slowdowns. During contract negotiations in 2002, employers locked out longshoremen following slowdown allegations.

Whether the current problems are a prelude to a breakthrough or deeper strife is unclear. At least one outside group with a big stake in the outcome is worried.

"The threat of a West Coast port shutdown is creating high levels of uncertainty in a fragile economic climate," the National Retail Federation wrote Thursday in a letter to President Barack Obama that was signed by 105 trade associations representing an array of industries.

The federation asked that a federal mediator get involved.

The problems come as some importers are trying to hustle a last rush of holiday goods into their warehouses.

The largest stores already have their cargo or, anticipating problems like those now materializing, routed goods to ports on the East Coast. But smaller importers, particularly of toys and fashion, are vulnerable, said Frank Layo, a supply-chain expert at the management consultancy Kurt Salmon.

"There's a building backlog of boats that can't pull up to a berth," Layo noted.

A week ago, there were 10 ships anchored off the coast outside Los Angeles and Long Beach; on Thursday, 14 ships were waiting a space at the docks.


Contact Justin Pritchard at https://twitter.com/lalanewsman .


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