Talks resume on West Coast dockworkers' contract; cargo flow still slow but holiday goods OK

Labor strife on the West Coast waterfront isn't going to steal Christmas.

Dockworkers at 29 sea ports from San Diego to Seattle have worked without a contract since July. Negotiations over a new one turned contentious this fall.

On Tuesday, full negotiating teams are meeting for the first time in nearly two weeks.

Public pressure has been mounting, especially because the movement of cargo — several billions dollars' worth on an average day, mostly to and from Asia — has been slowed. Those issues ripple through the economy, including truckers who don't get paid as much because they're hauling fewer loads and importers who are being charged fees to store containers in dockside yards.

An association representing transoceanic shipping lines and operators of port terminals accuses dockworkers of orchestrating work slowdowns at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and north to Oakland and Washington state. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union says they have been working safely and that the bigger factor is a shortage of truck beds to carry containers from the docks in Los Angeles and Long Beach — by far the nation's largest — into commerce.

At the Southern California port complex, for example, the time it took between when a ship docked and when a container was available for pickup more than doubled to about 80 hours between September 2013 and September 2014, according to data from INTTRA, which tracks global trade for shipping lines.

While both work pace and equipment shortages are a factor, retailers say most holiday goods are safely through the ports. Most likely affected would be the restocking of "must-have" toys or other surprise sellers.

In those cases, importers might opt for air delivery, which is about 10 times more expensive than delivery by ship, according to Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain at the National Retail Federation.

Those stores are "pretty much eating the cost at this point," Gold said.


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