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TROUBLE ON THE WATERFRONT

Industry Gears Up for Task of Untangling Huge Backlog

Transportation: More than 200 cargo ships wait to be unloaded. Shortages of workers, truck drivers and trains could hamper effort.

October 08, 2002|DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even if the Bush administration wins a court injunction to reopen the ports immediately, untangling the huge backlog of cargo at West Coast ports might take four to six weeks of round-the-clock work.

The transportation industry is gearing up for the massive task of removing the logjam of undelivered goods, but those efforts could be hampered by port bottlenecks and shortages of dockworkers, railroad cars, truck drivers and other equipment to haul shipping containers.

"The ports are going to have to work 24-7," said Erik Autor, vice president of the giant National Retail Federation, which represents 2,500 businesses, many of them dependent on waterborne trade.

"I'm not sure anyone has an idea how it will all be handled, but we do know it will be a logistical nightmare," he said.

The 29 West Coast ports have been closed since Sept. 29, when the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, locked out union dockworkers in response to work slowdowns.

Responding to escalating calls for intervention, President Bush on Monday established a board of inquiry that will issue a report today on whether there is enough evidence to win a court order under the Taft-Hartley Act to reopen the ports for an 80-day cooling-off period.

More than 200 cargo ships are waiting to be unloaded at West Coast ports, and dozens more are expected to arrive in the days ahead.

The queued-up vessels carry several hundred thousand shipping containers laden with apparel, electronics, auto parts, consumer goods and toys for the holiday season.

The worst backlog is in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's largest harbor complex. About 120 cargo vessels are either docked in port or anchored nearby.

If the lockout were to end today, terminal operators, shipping company executives and businesspeople said, they would expect cargo to be delivered from early November to Thanksgiving.

Some retail associations, such as the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, are advising their membership that restoring the ports to normal operations will take four to six days for each day the harbors are closed.

How to move the stranded cargo has been the subject of repeated planning sessions involving shipping lines, tug operators, harbor pilots, officials with the Marine Exchange, which oversees harbor vessel traffic, and the federal government.

"This is a significant challenge, but the experience to handle it is there," said John Patchner, a former shipping executive and consultant to the Pacific Maritime Assn.

"The goal is to unclog the ports as quickly as possible," Patchner said. "The plans will have some extraordinary elements to them. Let's say ports will not be limited to an 8-to-5 day."

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which has been in a lengthy contract dispute with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, has established a central clearinghouse for allocating labor in each West Coast port.

In Los Angeles and Long Beach, ships will be unloaded on a first-come, first-served basis. Capt. Manny Aschemeyer, director of the Marine Exchange, said no priorities have been assigned yet to any refrigerated cargo, perishable items or other goods needed on an emergency basis.

Vessels already docked, Aschemeyer said, probably will be unloaded first to make way for the others in line--much the way the port normally operates.

"It is going to take a long time," Aschemeyer said. "Once ships are in, there might not be enough gangs of dockworkers to go around. Five might be ordered, but the ship might only get two. You'll just have to wait your turn."

Officers of the ILWU, which represents more than 10,500 West Coast dockworkers, said labor shortages are probable when the ports reopen. They also said they did not want safety compromised by intense industry pressure to clear the backlog quickly. Five ILWU workers have been killed in waterfront accidents this year.

Weeks before the lockout, an ILWU official said, there were already shortages of dockworkers caused by a 10% to 20% increase in cargo arriving at West Coast ports.

"There aren't the people to do this," said Steve Stallone, an ILWU spokesman.

"We've been pushing them [the Pacific Maritime Assn.] to register more people in the union. They won't do that. Then they complain [that] we don't send them enough trained people."

Labor isn't the only concern. The huge onslaught of cargo is expected to put severe pressure on terminal space used to store containers. Port roads are expected to be clogged more than usual as truck drivers line up to pick up the swelling inventory of cargo.

"There will be lines to get into the terminal. There will be lines to pick up a chassis [a container trailer] if there are shortages. There will be lines to pick up your container," said Salvador Abrica, a truck driver for Aztlan Logistics in Wilmington. "I don't want to go there and sit and not make any money."

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