West Coast Shippers Say Port Backups Untenable Amid Labor Talks

port of long beach
Screen shot from MarineTraffic.com of the congestion off of the Port of Long Beach, California

By James Nash

(Bloomberg) — A port slowdown and eight months of fruitless labor talks with longshoremen have brought West Coast port congestion to the point of a breakdown, according to representatives of shipping companies.

Backups at the five largest ports have reached levels that are “no longer sustainable,” the Pacific Maritime Association, the bargaining agent for shippers, said today in a statement. While stopping short of a threat, the statement suggests the long-running labor dispute may be moving closer to a work stoppage like the one that shut down 29 West Coast ports for 10 days in 2002.

“The PMA has a sense of urgency to resolve these contract talks and get our ports moving again,” association spokesman Steve Getzug said in the statement. “Unfortunately, it appears the union’s motivation is to continue slowdowns in an attempt to gain leverage in the bargaining.”

The shippers’ association has been in negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union since May. A federal mediator agreed Jan. 6 to intervene in the talks.

Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the 20,000-member union, said association negotiators have conceded that the delays are mostly due to a shortage of truck chassis to unload shipping containers. The management side is proposing to end night shifts at many ports, which would only worsen backups, “in a self-serving attempt to gain the upper hand at the bargaining table,” Merrilees said in a written statement.

Offshore Queues

Both sides agree that congestion in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma, has slowed the movement of goods from overseas to stores and factories in the U.S.

Ten ships were queued up offshore at the harbor shared by the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports this afternoon, up from as few as five in December, said Phillip Sanfield, a spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles.

Backups could worsen with a push to move goods from Asia in advance of the two-week Lunar New Year holiday, which begins Feb. 19, Sanfield said.

The delays have stunted revenue for companies such as MOBI Technologies Inc., a Culver City, California-based maker of digital thermometers, wireless audio-visual monitors and other products.

David Naghi, the privately held company’s chief executive, said delays in importing products from China kept MOBI products from store shelves during the holiday shopping season, causing the company to end 2014 without a profit.

“We still have products sitting on the boats that should have been in stores a month ago,” Naghi said.

Copyright 2015 Bloomberg.