With contract negotiations heading into their eighth week, slowdowns by dock workers have spread to all major West Coast ports, where the movement of cargo at many terminals is taking at least twice as long as usual, according to shipping company estimates.
The persistent slowdowns have become a concern for many of the nation's largest retailers, who fear that the pace of work will trigger delays and transportation bottlenecks as the country heads into the busiest shipping season of the year.
"Major retailers are deeply concerned and distressed about the situation," said Robin Lanier, a senior vice president for the International Mass Retail Assn., which represents Wal-Mart, Kmart and Home Depot. "There aren't a whole lot of options available for getting their freight."
The slowdowns coincide with ongoing labor negotiations between the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents about 100 stevedore companies, terminal operators and shipping lines on the West Coast.
At issue is a new three-year contract that will affect almost 10,000 dock workers in California, Oregon and Washington. No final agreement has been reached after almost eight weeks of talks in San Francisco.
"I am not quite sure why the union leadership wants to slow down the steamship companies and impose greater hardship on the industry," said C. Bradley Mulholland, president of Matson Navigation Co., one of the nation's oldest shipping lines. "The negotiations could go on without these inconveniences and added costs."
In Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's largest combined port, shipping lines and terminal operators reported Tuesday that dock workers are taking 20% to 50% longer to load and unload ships.
Slowdowns by local marine clerks, who track cargo on the docks, have caused more delay at terminal gates for truck drivers who are picking up or delivering shipments.
Hardest hit have been the Port of Oakland and harbors in the Pacific Northwest, such as Portland, Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, Wash. Shipping companies estimate that the productivity of longshore workers has been cut by half, sometimes more, depending on the terminal.
"We are not moving as many containers as before. There are longer truck lines and there is congestion at all our terminals. Pretty soon we may have to slow down ship operations even more," said Doug Tilden, president of Marine Terminals Corp., one of the largest operators of cargo facilities on the West Coast.
The union's position is that no slowdowns are occurring. Rather, longshore workers have become concerned about safety conditions on the docks and are working in conformance with the old contract, which expired July 1.
Steve Stallone, a union spokesman, said that in Los Angeles and Long Beach, for example, marine clerks have simply decided not to work overtime hours that allow terminals to open early and move cargo at lunchtime.
The union's chief negotiator, James Spinosa, has declined to comment on the talks because there is a media blackout in effect for the duration of discussions.
Last week, however, in a statement, he said that officials of the Pacific Maritime Assn. have been trying to bargain in the news media in order to elicit support for their positions and make the union "look bad."
Spinosa said the association's actions have violated an agreement in May not to talk to the media about the negotiations. He called the association's public remarks "one-sided and purposefully inaccurate."
In his statement, Spinosa said that improvements in pension benefits, particularly for the pool of retired longshore workers, are a key issue for the union.
"Pre-1991 pension levels were among the lowest of any occupation that received wages commensurate with longshore workers at the time," he said. "As a result, many present-day retirees of the ILWU are receiving pensions at poverty levels."
Before talks broke off over the Fourth of July weekend, Pacific Maritime Assn. officials said they had offered the union a 32% increase in pension benefits for future retirees and a 15% increase in benefits for retired longshore workers.
Both sides agreed to suspend talks for several days so the union could consider the association's offer. Association officials say the news blackout was not in effect during the pause.
Talks resumed late last week, but during the hiatus, terminal operators and port officials said they began to notice slowdowns by marine clerks in Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Last week, dock workers in Oakland shut down the port for two days during a dispute over whether crane operators would have to serve as signal workers when they were not driving cranes.
The crane operators decided to return to work. However, terminal operators have been reporting a steady slowdown in the harbor ever since.
Port officials in Oakland said there are at least three ships waiting for berths and that at least one container ship has bypassed the port in search of another harbor.
"Our production is down between 50% to 70% in Oakland," said Jon Hemingway, president of Stevedoring Services of America, which has operations in seven West Coast ports. "All our terminals are clogging up. We are seeing vessels and cargo bypassing some harbors."
Officials for ports and shipping lines say that if the slowdowns continue in the weeks ahead, serious difficulties could develop for industries and retailers that rely heavily on ships to get parts, raw materials and finished goods.
"Each day means a little more delay, a little more cargo that backs up on the docks," said Art Wong, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach, the largest container port in the nation. "If all this ends tomorrow, we will probably be OK. But if it drags on, there could be real problems."