After more than one year of negotiations, one California port official is optimistic there will be a new contract soon between West Coast longshore workers and their employers.
“I believe we are on the doorstep of a tentative agreement,” said Gene Seroka, the executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, during a webinar on Thursday about the port’s monthly cargo container volumes. “Both sides are spending a lot of time at the negotiating table, and I am optimistic we will hear good news soon.”
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That is the first time a major port official has publicly mentioned an imminent resolution to the drawn-out negotiations started in May 2022 between the International Longshore Workers Union, which represents 22,000 workers at 29 West Coast ports, and Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the 70 port terminal operators that employ them.
While Seroka was bullish about an imminent labor resolution, representatives from the PMA and the ILWU said they have agreed to not talk about the negotiations until an agreement has been reached in San Francisco.
News of a possible contract is a relief to shippers who are so worried about a dockworker strike that they have been sending their cargo to other ports on the East Coast, including New York/New Jersey; the Port of Virginia; the Port of Savannah, and the Port of Houston. The Port of Los Angeles, Seroka said, is operating at only 70 percent of regular capacity because import cargo has declined due to reduced consumer and manufacturing demand for products and diversion to other ports.
Recently, the relationship between Southern California longshore workers and their employers has grown rockier. A few months ago, dockworkers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach began staging work slowdowns. In mid-March, they began taking lunch breaks simultaneously instead of staggering them to keep port operations running continuously. That caused the ports to shut down for one hour during the day for lunch and one hour at night for dinner. That lasted for a few days.
Then on Good Friday, April 7, longshore workers decided to take the day off, even though it wasn’t a holiday normally observed by the union. The laborers’ work slowdowns were an attempt to speed up negotiations for a contract that expired July 1.
A new contract would alleviate shippers’ worries about the upcoming peak shipping season, which this year is anticipated to be from September to October. “Based on purchase orders that have already gone out and discussions with retailers, manufacturers and automotive companies we’ll probably see a relatively short peak season,” Seroka said.
The 2021 peak shipping season was a disaster. Ships were backed up trying to find a vacant berth. Cargo containers were stacked on docks for as long as eight days waiting to be picked up. Rail yard container dwell times peaked at 11 to 12 days. Most of that kind of logjam has been cleared, but warehouses in Southern California remain filled to the brim with merchandise.
The Southern California ports, which make up the largest port complex in the U.S., don’t believe they will have problems clearing that holiday merchandise off the docks this year because of decreased shipping traffic and better data. They can look 14 days down the road and see what cargo is scheduled to arrive from north Asia and 40 days ahead of time for cargo coming from south and southeast Asia. “That gives us more time to plan,” Seroka said. “We’re a lot smarter than we were a couple of years ago.”
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