California Port Gridlock: Labor Disputes May End Up Costing Billions

Alex Lubben

Longshore workers and truckers in California operate at key nodes of the American economy, able to prevent billions of dollars worth of goods from reaching stores throughout the country. (Lance Cunningham / Flickr)

West Coast ports are stuck in gridlock. Earlier this week, truck drivers were waiting for as long as seven hours at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to try to retrieve single containers of cargo. The backup at these ports, which handle the majority of shipments from Asia, is threatening the timely delivery of billions of dollars’ worth of holiday goods.

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents the docking companies at ports along the West Coast, blamed the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) for the initial slowdown, accusing the union of refusing to dispatch skilled workers at the ports, creating backups that are part of an attempt to gain leverage in contract negotiations. The union — whose workers have been without a contract since July—has denied that they are intentionally clogging the ports’ flow of goods.

The orchestrated job actions,” as PMA refers to the alleged slowdown, began at ports in the Pacific Northwest and has since spread to the Los Angeles-Long Beach (LA-LB) ports. PMA claims that the ILWU informed them that they would stop dispatching qualified workers.

ILWU denied this in a press release issued on November 10:

Obscuring months of data regarding the non-labor related causes of the current crisis-level congestion problem, PMA’s Texas-based public relations firm announced that the ILWU was the cause bringing the port complex to the brink of gridlock.” The public relations firm also propagandized about the ILWU, its leadership, and false claims of safety issues.

They contended that the delays are due instead to an exodus of truck drivers from their industry because trucking companies refuse to pay a living wage, record retail import volumes and larger vessels discharging enormous amounts of cargo. That concern was echoed by truck drivers, who walked off the job earlier this week as well. They’ve struck multiple times this year, complaining of what they say is improper classification as independent contractors and low wages. While it isn’t yet clear whether the drivers’ strike is significantly impacting the flow of goods from the port, if longshore workers choose to join the truckers, the ports would likely be thrown into total chaos.

A coalition of retailers, wholesalers, farmers and manufactures from the National Retail Federation (NRF) issued a letter to President Obama asking for federal mediation in the longshore workers’ contract negotiations. Even before the truckers’ strike, the coalition feared the consequences of the worker unrest:

The threat of a West Coast port shutdown is creating high levels of uncertainty in a fragile economic climate which has forced many businesses to once again undertake contingency plans that come at a significant cost to jobs and our economic competitiveness.

A report by the NRF estimates that a total stoppage could cost the economy as much as $2 billion a day.

Alex Lubben is the former Deputy Publisher at In These Times and is currently a freelance journalist in New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @alexlubben.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue