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With deal, West Coast seaports tackle huge cargo backlog

February 22, 2015

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The leader of the Port of Los Angeles, the nation’s largest, said Saturday it would take three months “to get back a sense of normalcy,” following a labor dispute between dockworkers and employers.

The volume of cargo that West Coast dockworkers and their employers must clear, now that they’ve reached a tentative contract agreement Friday evening, is staggering. Put in a line, the containers would stretch 579 miles (930 kilometers). Stacked up, they’d rise nearly 250 miles (400 kilometers)— about the orbiting altitude of the International Space Station.

And those are just the ships waiting for dock space at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. There are smaller, though substantial, backups in San Francisco Bay and Washington’s Puget Sound. The Port of Oakland reckoned it would take up to eight weeks to recover.

In recent weeks, companies that operate marine terminals cut night, weekend and holiday shifts — saying they did not want to pay overtime for what amounted to a “strike with pay.” That was a reference to what they said was a worker slowdown that began in November. The union said longshoremen were abiding by all safety rules.

It was the kind of brinksmanship familiar from past negotiations between two sides with a history of conflict that dates to the killing of striking dockworkers during the Great Depression.

While the ports never shut down fully, the problems in the supply chain were acute — and growing. All told, West Coast ports handle about $1 trillion worth of cargo annually.

The contract deal will, eventually, restore the free flow of cargo across docks at 29 seaports that handle about one-quarter of U.S. international trade.

U.S. exports, particularly from farms, also are waiting to reach Asian markets.

Seroka wants to prioritize ships serving U.S. military bases on the Pacific Rim or carrying perishables such as produce, autos or goods for major retailers.

“The sense of urgency in the industry right now is as good as I’ve ever seen it,” Seroka said of both sides’ willingness to speed cargo into the stream of commerce.

The tentative contract still must be approved by the 13,000-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s rank-and-file, as well as the full Pacific Maritime Association of employers.

A vote by union members could come in April. It was not immediately clear when employers would vote.

Neither side released details, but in a recent letter, maritime association President James McKenna outlined what he called employers’ “last, best and final” offer. It included maintenance of nearly no-cost health coverage, an $11,000 increase in the maximum pension benefit to $91,000, and a $1-per-hour wage increase over each of the five years.

Though dockworker wages vary by job and skill level, the average exceeds $50 per hour, according to the maritime association, which represents ocean-going shipping lines and the companies that load and unload cargo at port terminals.

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

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