Ports Still Clogged With Waiting Ships

West Coast Ports

As of Thursday, February 26, 2015

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SIZING DOWN: A sign recently posted in a Payless shoe store in Whittier, Calif.

Hammering out a tentative contract with longshore workers took nine months of negotiations. Now importers are hoping it doesn’t take as long to clear the backlog of merchandise floating on the water outside the country’s largest ports, in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The number of cargo-container ships parked beyond the breakwater off the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach reached a recent all-time high of 27 vessels on Feb. 23. That was three days after a tentative contract agreement was announced between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association—representing the shipping lines and port terminal operators who employ them.

By Feb. 26 the number of waiting cargo container ships was still at 27.

In a press conference convened Feb. 23 at the decommissioned battleship USS Iowa near the Port of Los Angeles, both sides vowed to clear the mound of merchandise sitting for weeks and months on ships or docks. Port officials noted it could take as long as three months to clear the backlog.

Bobby Olvera Jr., president of ILWU Local 13, with 7,000 members working at the Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex, assured everyone that the longshore workers were ready to rev up again. “We are committed now and long-term to making sure these cans move and our economy moves,” he said. “We are going to work seven days a week around the clock.”

In previous months, the longshore workers had been accused of staging a work slowdown by not sending in enough qualified crane operators to expedite clearing the docks. That set the stage for tense labor negotiations in San Francisco. Toward the end, a federal mediator and U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez were dispatched to hammer out a deal.

A tentative labor agreement was announced on Feb. 20. Both sides vowed to get back to work while ILWU and PMA members analyze the contract and vote on it.

ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said the union first must have a caucus meeting of the 90 elected delegates from the 29 West Coast ports covered by the contract. The caucus meets for a week to review the tentative agreement and decides whether to recommend it to members.

Then there are local membership meetings and a secret ballot to ratify the agreement. Merrilees said the process can take several months, but work will continue as if there were a contract in place.

The new contract, covering nearly 20,000 workers, is for five years, replacing the previous six-year contract, which expired on July 1.