Ships Stack Up as Port Terminals Try to Clear Back-Logged Containers

Setting a record is often a good thing. But on the waterfront, it can be a bad thing.

As of Jan. 15, there were 13 cargo-container ships anchored beyond the breakwater that protects the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles. This is the largest number of ships sitting idle on the water since the ports’ congestion problems began in October.

It beats the previous record of 12 vessels on Nov. 11 and Nov. 23 last year and on Jan. 14 this year, said Capt. Kip Louttit, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which tracks the comings and goings of ships at the local ports.

People are now waiting as long as one month to get their merchandise cleared from the docks.

To tackle the gridlocked cargo sitting at the two ports, the Pacific Maritime Association, made up of shipping lines and port terminals, said it would stop loading and unloading cargo from ships at night.

Instead it is working to move more cargo containers off the docks at night to make room for incoming cargo unloaded during the day. “This will continue until we are able to chip away at the congestion,” said PMA spokesman Steve Getzug. “There have been backlogs and delays ongoing for weeks, largely due to complications with the ILWU [International Longshore and Warehouse Union] slowdown. … If the ILWU would dispatch crane yard drivers in the numbers necessary to get cargo moving, that would help. That has been the problem for 10 weeks.”

Loading and unloading of ships continue during the day, Getzug said.

The ILWU maintains that the congestion problem is being caused by a chassis shortage and management decisions to not load and unload at night.

“Longshore workers are ready, willing and able to clear the backlog created by the industry’s poor decisions,” ILWU President Bob McEllrath said. “The employer is making nonsensical moves, like cutting back on shifts at a critical time, creating gridlock in a cynical attempt to turn public opinion against workers. This creates an incendiary atmosphere during negotiations and does nothing to get us closer to an agreement.”

Negotiations for a new six-year contract between the ILWU and PMA continue in San Francisco with the help of a federal mediator called in on Jan. 6. The last ILWU contract expired on July 1, but negotiations began in mid-May. Strides have been made in the area of healthcare, which was a difficult issue to resolve, but other issues remain on the table.

“The talks are ongoing,” Getzug said. “There has been good structure and content, and we are focused on getting a new contract as quickly as possible.”