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US West port slowdown won’t halt holiday goods

December 2, 2014

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Talks are resuming to end labor strife at the West Coast ports that form a key link between Asian suppliers and American holiday shoppers.

With few exceptions, gifts and other holiday products made in Asia and shipped through U.S. sea ports already have made it to shelves — or are at distribution centers and ready to ship. Still, cargo is struggling to get through the largest U.S. ports, which handle billions of dollars of goods on an average day.

One issue has been the discord between dockworkers at 29 ports from San Diego to Seattle and their employers. Their contract expired in July, and negotiations over a new one turned tough recently after employers accused dockworkers of slowing down to gain bargaining leverage.

Full negotiating teams from the Pacific Maritime Association and International Longshore and Warehouse Union met Tuesday afternoon for the first time in nearly two weeks.

Public pressure for an agreement has been mounting, though the White House has said it will not intervene.

The union and employers have a contentious history, including a lockout during 2002 contract negotiations that required federal action to resolve.

As was the case then, the maritime association accuses dockworkers of intentionally slowing work or not providing full crews. The union says its members have been working safely and that the bigger problem is a shortage of truck beds to carry containers from the docks to markets.

At the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, America’s largest, the time between a ship docking and when a container was available for pickup more than doubled to about 80 hours from September 2013 to September 2014, according to data from INTTRA, which tracks global trade for shipping lines. On a typical day in recent weeks, about a dozen ships have sat at anchor awaiting a berth, according to data from the Marine Exchange of Southern California.

While both work pace and equipment shortages are a factor, retailers say most holiday goods are making it safely through the ports. At greatest risk 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, said 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.

Problems at the ports are rippling through the economy. Truckers aren’t getting paid as much because they are hauling fewer loads, exporters of Washington state apples say they’re losing tens of millions of dollars each week as shipments languish, and importers are paying to store containers in dockside yards.

Knowing past difficulties between West Coast dockworkers and their employers, some importers tried to avoid disruptions with advanced planning. But West Coast ports are such an important link to Asia that some importers have little choice.

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Contact Justin Pritchard at http://twitter.com/lalanewsman .

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