If there's something missing under the tree this Christmas morning, the mess at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach may be to blame. As we went to press, almost 90 cargo container ships had piled up along the coast of Southern California awaiting their turn to pull into a berth. And even when their turn to dock arrives, there's no guarantee those ships will be off-loaded promptly. Owing to a shortage of labor and equipment, unloading delays were running to well over a week at press time.
Given the huge volumes of clothing and consumer goods that journey to U.S. retailers' shelves from Asia, mostly via Los Angeles/Long Beach, there's a good chance that a lot of those Aquapets, Dancing E-L-M-O dolls and laser tag sets won't even make it onto dry land in time for Christmas. The two busiest ports in the country, Los Angeles and Long Beach serve as the gateway for as much as half of all imports into the United States. As port problems mount, the ripple effect on supply chains across North America is starting to look more like a tidal wave.
Finger pointers will find no shortage of things to blame: traffic congestion in Southern California—both on the railroad tracks and on the roads that connect the ports to the outside world; space limitations within the ports themselves; an equipment shortage. And although no one's churlish enough to complain about it, tightened security measures are responsible for at least some of the delays.
Then there's the apparent rift between port officials and the unionized dock workers. Two years ago, a contract dispute between the ports and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) shut the ports down entirely for 11 days. Today, the ports may be open and the workers may be working, but it appears that the hostility continues to simmer.
Of all the problems contributing to this logistics nightmare, few lend themselves to short-term solutions. Easing traffic congestion and the space crunch, for example, would mean building highways, rail tracks and ship berths; buying cranes and other equipment; and increasing the temporary storage space around the docks. That will take time—most likely, a very long time.
That leaves technology upgrades and adding staff as the only available short-term fixes. But the chilly relationship between the ports and the union will make that anything but a slam-dunk. Concerns about job losses have made union officials wary of proposals to bring in new data-entry technology that would blast through some of the administrative bottlenecks and get goods moving swiftly through the ports. And although the union and port management have reportedly agreed on a plan for extending the ports' operating hours, a hitch has prevented them from putting that plan into action.
Not that any of this is new. This year's holiday crunch has simply trained the spotlights on a problem that's been festering for some time—a problem that will only worsen as Asian imports continue to pour in. Simply put, our import volume has outpaced the system's ability to keep up, both in terms of people and infrastructure. To put it another way, they have come, but unfortunately, we have not yet built it. The cart has gotten way ahead of the horse.
Improving the infrastructure will take months, if not years. Our only hope in the meantime hinges on the ILWU's willingness to work more cooperatively with port officials for the overall good of the economy.
And time is running short. If the two parties can't reach agreement soon, an ugly supply chain picture will only get uglier. And when small children are disappointed not to find those special toys under the tree this month, some of us might wonder: "Does the Grinch carry a union card?"