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L.A., Long Beach port disruptions continue amid tough contract talks

Trucks sit along the side of a road in the Port of Los Angeles on Friday after dockworkers disrupted operations there and at the Port of Long Beach because contract talks have deteriorated.

Posted on May 8, 2024

Two terminals at the Port of Long Beach and one at the Port of Los Angeles shut Monday in the wake of disruptions that hit a number of West Coast ports after contract talks deteriorated in recent days.

Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach, said in a statement that the terminals closed due to “operational needs” and were set to reopen for the evening shift.

At least one Long Beach port terminal is set to shut Tuesday, according to a Bloomberg report.

Southern California dockworkers disrupted cargo activity beginning Friday at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports — major entry points for the country’s imports.

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping companies and port terminal operators, said Monday that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union “has continued to stage concerted and disruptive work actions that have slowed operations” at several terminals in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, and Seattle.

The union held stop-work meetings Thursday night, and on Friday, members either didn’t show up for work or staged individual work slowdowns. The combination snarled traffic at the ports, forcing some terminals to shut down.

Spokespeople for the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, which combine to form the nation’s largest cargo complex, said late Friday that the ports were operating despite labor shortages. An Oakland port spokesperson said cargo operations had halted because there weren’t enough dockworkers to handle containers.

“As we continue to monitor terminal activity, we urge the PMA and ILWU to continue negotiating in good faith toward a fair agreement,” Cordero said in a statement Friday.

Although the labor disturbance was temporary, it underscores a high-stakes dance between wealthy shipping companies and a powerful labor union, with ramifications for 175,000 Southern California workers — employed at the harbors themselves as well as in related businesses — moving freight valued at $469 billion a year, port data show.

The union’s latest action is the boldest so far to sway contract negotiations, focused primarily on pay after reaching a tentative agreement on the role of automation. More than 22,000 dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports have been working without a contract since July 1.

ILWU Local 13, which represents Southern California dockworkers, said about 12,000 of its members have “taken it upon themselves to voice their displeasure with the ocean carriers’ and terminal operators’ position.”

In April, dockworkers forced an approximately 24-hour shutdown at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, exacerbating fears that failure of the contract negotiations could bring about a paralyzing impasse like the one in 2002, when President Bush stepped in to end an 11-day employer lockout of West Coast longshoremen.

The month before, the Pacific Maritime Assn. complained, union members started taking their meal breaks all at the same time, rather than staggering them. The employer group described it as a “work action.”

The two Southern California ports handle nearly 40% of U.S. cargo container imports from Asia.

In a statement, ILWU International President Willie Adams said negotiations are still underway.

“We are getting there, but it’s important to understand that West Coast dockworkers kept the economy going during the pandemic and lost their lives doing so. We aren’t going to settle for an economic package that doesn’t recognize the heroic efforts and personal sacrifices of the ILWU workforce that lifted the shipping industry to record profits,” Adams said.

Contract uncertainty at West Coast ports is having a long-term effect, experts say.

As labor negotiations have dragged on and union members have staged job actions, some nervous retailers and manufacturers have rerouted goods, causing imports and exports through the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports to fall in recent months.

“When you have periodic disruptions, this will discourage shippers from using Oakland, Tacoma, Long Beach. It’s going to be very difficult for the ports to convince shippers that these ports will be reliable gateways for international trade,” said international trade economist Jock O’Connell of Beacon Economics.

Ports on the West Coast, which historically held a geographical advantage because of their proximity to Asia, are increasingly competing against facilities in other locales, such as the Panama Canal and along the Gulf of Mexico for transpacific containerized imports and exports.

“An event like today reminds shippers that it is riskier to ship through West Coast even though it takes longer,” O’Connell said. “This will affect revenue and jobs locally.”

A retail trade group on Friday urged a quick resolution.

“Our nation’s West Coast ports are a crucial link in the retail supply chain. Any interruption or disruption in their operations immediately has a ripple effect that impedes retailers’ ability to quickly and efficiently deliver for American consumers,” said Jessica Dankert, supply chain vice president for the Retail Industry Leaders Assn.


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