US West Coast Ports Busy, Struggling With Backlog

February 24,2015

LOS ANGELES— Most West Coast U.S. ports have been busy since Friday, when negotiators reached a tentative settlement in a nine-month labor dispute and work slowdown. Both sides say with the cargo moving again, they can focus on long-term problems.

Dozens of ships have been docked or waiting offshore at 29 West Coast ports, and port officials say it will take months to process all the cargo. Most dockworkers have returned to work, but must still vote on the tentative five-year contract.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez had increased pressure as both sides talked in San Francisco, but negotiations were not easy, says Craig Merrilees of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

“You know, there are a lot of tough issues in this process that lasted over nine months, and some of them are the kinds of issues that are affecting all workers," he said. "That includes the outsourcing of good jobs.”

Workers says clerical jobs at the port have been moving to other states and other countries. They are also worried about increasing automation of the port facilities, reducing the need for workers.

Those who move goods into and out of the country include San Francisco coffee company, Ritual Coffee Roasters, where a worker scoops coffee beans ready for roasting.

“We are reliant on constant arrivals of coffee in order to have a fresh supply,” said company founder Eileen Rinaldi.

Others who rely on the ports -- small breweries that use imported hops to brew their beer.

Farmers, who need to ship their perishable citrus -- and a California children's clothing company that has seen its products, which are manufactured in China, sitting in cargo ships in Oakland harbor.

The cargo is moving again, but long-term problems at the ports must be addressed, said transportation analyst Tom O'Brien of California State University, Long Beach.

“The fact that we have larger ships coming now, that is creating peak demand for labor and for equipment is putting a lot of pressure on our infrastructure, not only the ports, but the road network, rail capacity, distribution center and warehousing,” he said.

O'Brien said it all needs to be ramped up to meet increasing trade needs in the future.