Feb 21, 2015 5:12 PM

With deal, West Coast seaports tackle huge cargo backlog

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES (AP) Parked off the Southern California coast is an armada of ships bulging with containers holding a shopper's delight of goods that would already be on store shelves, but for a labor dispute that has disrupted international trade for months.

The volume of cargo that West Coast dockworkers and their employers must clear, now that they've reached a tentative contract agreement Friday evening, is staggering. Put in a line, the containers would stretch 579 miles; stacked up, they'd rise nearly 250 miles about the orbiting altitude of the International Space Station.

And those are just the ships waiting for dock space at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. There are smaller, though substantial, backups in San Francisco Bay and Washington's Puget Sound.

The contract deal will, eventually, restore the free flow of cargo across docks at 29 seaports that handle about one-quarter of U.S. international trade.

It will take several months for ports such as Los Angeles and Long Beach the nation's largest to clear the backlog, which swelled as negotiations ground into an impasse.

On Saturday, the leader of the Port of Los Angeles estimated that it would take three months "to get back a sense of normalcy." While there are about 30 ships just off the coast a visual reminder of the extent of the backlog there are perhaps two dozen more hanging beyond the horizon and still more slogging across the Pacific, executive director Gene Seroka said.

U.S. exports, particularly from farms, are also waiting to reach Asian markets.

Seroka said he was drawing up a detailed plan for which ships get priority, with a preference for those carrying perishables such as produce, serving U.S. military bases on the Pacific Rim or carrying autos and goods for major retailers.

"The sense of urgency in the industry right now is as good as I've ever seen it," Seroka said of both sides willingness to speed cargo into the stream of commerce.

The smaller Port of Oakland reckoned it would take up to eight weeks to recover.

By Saturday morning, smaller work crews were preparing dockside yards for a return to full work in the evening.

"I suspect that people will be getting a lot of overtime in the days ahead," said U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez, whom President Obama dispatched to San Francisco this week to push negotiators to a resolution after nine months of bargaining.

All told, West Coast ports handle about $1 trillion worth of cargo annually.

As negotiations faltered, a tit -for-tat dynamic developed. Dockworkers slowed down last fall by closely following safety rules; employers responded in January by cutting night, weekend and holiday shifts saying they did not want to pay overtime for what amounted to a "strike with pay." It was the kind of brinksmanship familiar from past negotiations between two sides with a history of conflict that dates to the killing of striking dockworkers during the Great Depression.

While the ports never shut down fully, the problems in the supply chain were acute and growing.

The tentative contract still must be approved by the 13,000-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union's rank-and-file, as well as the full Pacific Maritime Association of employers.

A vote by union members could come in April. It was not immediately clear when employers would vote.

Neither side released details, but in a recent letter, maritime association President James McKenna outlined what he called employers' "last, best and final" offer. It included maintenance of nearly no-cost health coverage, an $11,000 increase in the maximum pension benefit to $91,000, and a $1-per-hour wage increase over each of the five years.

Though dockworker wages vary by job and skill level, the average exceeds $50 per hour, according to the maritime association, which represents ocean-going shipping lines and the companies that load and unload cargo at port terminals.

The union's ability to win white-collar wages and benefits for blue collar work reflects a clout far beyond its numbers.

That power revolves around several things that founding father Harry Bridges enshrined both in the union's culture and its contract with employers. First, that contract covers all West Coast ports if dockworkers want to gain leverage by slowing the flow of cargo, shipping lines have no easy alternatives. Second, the union controls job assignments, partly through hiring halls in each port area.

"That's the power of the ILWU," said Dave Arian, who worked at the docks for 44 years and now runs the union-supported Harry Bridges Institute, a nonprofit that educates workers on labor history. "A small workforce with the ability to shut down the entire West Coast."


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


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