Labor Strife Escalates Amid Stagnant West Coast Port Negotiations

Employers blame dockworkers for cargo delays at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports as coastwide negotiations move into their 10th month

Unionized dockworkers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have stopped staggering work shifts during mealtimes, leading to delays in cargo operations and backups of trucks at terminal gates

Heightened Tensions in Port Talks

Tensions are escalating in the protracted contract negotiations at West Coast ports, as employers accuse unionized dockworkers of slowing cargo handling at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the top gateway for imported consumer goods in the nation. This heated rhetoric signals a departure from the previous agreement to remain publicly silent on negotiation issues, which commenced last spring. The two parties seem no closer to resolving their differences, indicating potential further disruptions to U.S. trade flows.

Staggered Shifts and Cargo Delays

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing ocean carriers and port employers, claimed on Monday that dockworkers at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports ceased staggering work shifts during mealtimes starting last Wednesday. As a result, terminals have been shutting down daily for an hour in the afternoon and another hour at night, causing "significant delays" in cargo operations and lengthy truck backups at terminal gates.

Union Response

International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) President Willie Adams defended dockworkers, asserting they are entitled to take lunch breaks like everyone else. Union officials argue that truck backups can occur for various reasons and accuse the PMA of emphasizing recent queues to sway public opinion.

Public Dispute Amid Ongoing Negotiations

The exchange between the PMA and the ILWU marks the first public confrontation since negotiations for a multiyear contract for over 22,000 dockworkers at 29 ports from California to Washington began in May 2022. Dockworkers have been without a contract since the last agreement expired in July. Although talks were scheduled to resume on Tuesday, a joint statement from the PMA and ILWU on February 23 indicated they remained hopeful for a deal soon.

Prior Contract Disputes and Economic Impact

Past contract negotiations have been fraught with tension, resulting in costly freight delays for individual retailers due to slowed operations and worker lockouts. Shipping industry executives and Biden administration officials had hoped for smoother negotiations this time, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the critical role West Coast ports play in the U.S. economy.

Cranes lift containers at the highly automated Long Beach Container Terminal. Automation is a major issue in West Coast labor negotiations

Stalled Talks and Automation Disputes

The negotiations stalled last summer and have since stuttered as dockworkers and employers struggle to reach consensus on issues such as job assignments and the use of automated handling equipment on the docks.

Cargo Diversions and Import Declines

Last week's slowdowns at Los Angeles and Long Beach mark the first time so many cargo-handling operations have been affected simultaneously. Importers began diverting cargoes to East and Gulf coast ports last summer in anticipation of labor disruptions. Combined container imports at Los Angeles and Long Beach fell 38% last month compared to a year earlier, reaching their lowest level since March 2020. Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka attributed the drop to a decrease in global trade, cargo diversions due to labor negotiations, and the desire of cargo owners for a signed deal.