LOS ANGELES — In the seventh month of negotiations for a key labor contract between dockworkers and harbor employers and with the peak of the holiday shipping season winding down, the West Coast ports are putting the worst of the congestion behind them, while apparel manufacturers and retailers are scrambling to salvage the holiday season.
As the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union plan to meet on Thursday in an effort to finalize a new contract to replace the six-year agreement that expired in July, the ports are attempting to clear the containers stacked on terminals. At the Port of Long Beach, the second busiest in the nation, delays have shortened to one or two weeks from, at their worst, two weeks to a month in October and November.
Manufacturers and retailers have adopted various measures to salvage apparel sales during the holiday season, which was marred by a lackluster start on the Black Friday weekend.
Searching for alternatives to shirts that have been stuck at the Port of Tacoma, Seattle-based Tommy Bahama used other merchandise from earlier deliveries to create a new holiday offering. To prevent another snafu in the future, the company plans to ship, by air, key styles for next year to ensure it has key looks for each season.
As was the case a month ago, Tacoma continues to log a productivity rate of 60 to 70 percent for cranes removing and loading containers onto ships, according to Tara Mattina, a spokeswoman for the port.
Although the peak holiday shipping season is over, she said, “There is still a backlog of containers out there. We’re still hearing from customers. They have stuff that was intended for holiday shelves.”
Art Wong, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach, attributed part of the problem with clearing the harbor of containers to the growing domestic economy. In addition to fitting bigger ships into berths designed for smaller vessels, there is a shortage of trucks and trains, which, instead, have been diverted to carry oil and grain.
“We might help to shave a day or two here by bringing in more chassis,” he said. “We haven’t been able to get more trains. We can’t get more trucks. Some of it is growing pains. Our economy is starting to grow. Too many sectors are in the recession mentality — they haven’t made investments and haven’t expanded.”
Focus is now shifting to exports, which are affected by the same productivity issues at the ports. The latest sector to come to public attention is the alleged shortage of French fries, which are shipped from Idaho via the West Coast ports to McDonald’s restaurants in Japan. At Long Beach, which has seen exports lag because of weakening demand in Asia, the priority is to unload ships.
In its latest statement on the negotiations, the Pacific Maritime Association said both parties remain “far apart on several issues.”
“Since our country depends heavily on the efficient flow of goods and with 12.5 percent of the U.S. GDP tied to cargo moving through West Coast ports, we need to return to meaningful negotiations in a productive environment free of union-staged slowdowns,” said PMA spokesman Wade Gates.
Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the union, said both parties plan to meet together on Thursday after assembling separately on Wednesday. The union on Monday submitted to the association its latest proposal, which received full support from some 20,000 dockworkers employed at 29 ports along the West Coast. In response to the association’s claim that the union disrupted productivity at the ports, Merrilees said the congestion was caused by “bad industry decisions” predating the alleged slowdown.
“The key drivers of congestion are industry-based changes in operations and business models, including chassis outsourcing, which have paralyzed ports and made the docks much more dangerous and difficult for workers,” Merrilees said. “Despite the long-standing and preexisting port congestion problems, both sides remain committed to reaching a fair agreement.”
Industry watchers said that, until the two sides hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement, congestion may linger. “It can’t be optimum until [the PMA and ILWU] have a contract,” said Wong from the Port of Long Beach.