It may not come as a surprise given the massive cargo backlogs and bad blood that have built up through the fall and winter, but three weeks after West Coast waterfront labor and management reached a tentative five-year collective bargaining agreement, the situation is still not stable.
At the Port of Oakland, a dispute over staffing levels between the International Longshore & Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) shut yard and gate operations at the Oakland International Container Terminal, the port's main terminal, on Wednesday. By Thursday, the terminal was operating normally, according to Mike Zampa, a port spokesman. Oakland is believed to be the only one of the 29 West Coast ports represented by the ILWU experiencing lingering labor issues.
PMA said on its web site that ILWU Local 10, which works the terminal, refused to allow yard crane operators to work unless management agreed to staff each crane with three workers instead of the normal ratio of two workers per crane. All other terminals at Oakland operate at a 2-to-1 worker-to-crane ratio, PMA said. The ILWU local was unavailable to comment.
Meanwhile, the Agricultural Transportation Coalition, a group that represents U.S. agriculture and lumber exporters, quoted in a note today an executive for a major importer that cannot unload all 12 of its containers from a ship in Oakland, and is being hit with $1,540 in demurrage, or detention, for failing to return one of the containers to the terminal within the allotted "free time" grace period. The importer, according to the group, said its truckers have queued up daily, but as of this morning had only recovered five of the boxes. The group quoted the executive as saying that importers should be granted "unlimited" free time for equipment returns because it is the fault of labor and management, not the user, that cargo is being released and delivered late. The group, whose members were hit especially hard by the dispute because they weren't able to get many of their goods to overseas buyers, quoted a California rice exporter as saying all Oakland exporters are going to "permanently lose customers and business" as buyers find, and remain with, suppliers from other nations. Exports account for about 55 percent of Oakland's traffic mix due to the port's proximity to the prominent growing areas of California's Central Valley.
Down the coast at the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest seaport, a "peel off" program has been launched. Under this plan, loaded containers belonging to high-volume customers are taken from the vessels and brought to a dedicated yard near the docks for transport to inland distribution centers. Upon arrival, the boxes are stacked in a block, drayed to a yard less than a mile away, and then sorted. The same trucks return to the terminals to retrieve the next inbound box, while carrying back with them empty containers to be staged for export traffic.
The program, which began February 25, will help clear the backlogs at Los Angeles while improving cargo flows, said Gene Seroka, the port's executive director. It will also increase truck turns, a key component in expediting goods movement and reducing congestion, supporters said.
"We have found an efficient way to get containers to their destination that is beginning to pay off," Seroka said in a statement. "We're acting on our pledge to our customers to harmonize the supply chain and make it work better. Permanently."
It will likely take Los Angeles and the adjacent Port of Long Beach until late April or mid-May to clear away all of the backlogs that developed as operations there slowed to a crawl late last year and through the first six weeks of 2015. The port is involved in the project with stevedoring company The Pasha Group; drayage firm Total Transportation Services Inc. (TTSI); several marine container-terminal operators, and a core group of major retailers. The model is likely to be implemented throughout the entire port, which covers 43 miles of waterfront.Long Beach loses ranking
The dramatic decline in containerized traffic knocked the Port of Long Beach from its long-held perch as the country's second-busiest container port, according to data released yesterday by consultancy Zepol Corp. Long Beach had held the number two position for 11 years, according to Zepol.
The Port of New York and New Jersey, which has long ranked third, jumped into the second spot by virtue of an 8-percent year-over-year gain in container import traffic through the end of February, Zepol said. By contrast, traffic at Long Beach dropped 20 percent year-over-year, while volumes at Los Angeles fell by 19 percent. Traffic is measured by twenty-foot equivalent units, or TEUs.
By contrast, container traffic at New York and New Jersey rose by 34,000 TEUs year-over-year. Traffic at the Port of Houston rose 29 percent, or 31,000 TEUs, while volumes at the Port of Savannah increased 20 percent, or 40,000 TEUs. East and Gulf Coast ports benefitted from moves by U.S. importers throughout 2014 to divert their cargoes to those ports via the Panama or Suez Canals. Importers did so to ensure goods were in U.S. commerce before the holiday buying season.
Zepol, which surveys 19 U.S. ports and one in San Juan, Puerto Rico, said overall import volumes through February fell 5 percent year-over-year. The drop-off was attributed to the decline at the southern California ports, which combined handle about 40 percent of the nation's containerized imports.