Port dispute is felt all along West Coast

Dockworker contract stalemate causes bottlenecks in Seattle, Oakland and Tacoma

The labor dispute that has stalled dozens of massive ships off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach isn't limited to the nation's busiest cargo complex.

The high-volume harbors at Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., also have battled severe bottlenecks for months as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and employer group Pacific Maritime Assn. have wrangled over a new contract for 20,000 dockworkers at ports from San Diego to Bellingham, Wash.

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez met with both sides Wednesday, the second straight day of direct White House involvement to break the stalemate.

Backlogs at the top ports have worsened as shipping companies have periodically halted the unloading of ships, most recently over the three-day Presidents Day weekend, while accusing the union of staging a work slowdown.

As the dispute drags on, operations at the large ports are taking a hit. Companies, seeking to avoid the delays, are looking elsewhere, including Canada.

The ports of Seattle and Tacoma said Wednesday that cargo traffic fell 13% last month from a year earlier. There were seven container ships at anchor off the port of Seattle and eight stuck off Tacoma, according to representatives of both ports.

For exporters such as Sage Fruit in Yakima, Wash., the delays have caused pain.

Packages of apples, cherries and nectarines have arrived in Asia as much as eight weeks late, said sales manager John Onstad.

"They certainly weren't in the condition the customers were expecting," he said.

As the latest holiday weekend shutdown loomed, "we had a lot of customers who simply said, 'We don't even want to purchase your product,'" Onstad said.

The Port of Oakland is also hurting. Volume there plunged 32% in January.

"There is your impact," said Port of Oakland spokesman Mike Zampa.

That followed a banner year in 2014. Diversions from congested gateways in L.A. and Long Beach helped the Northern California port see its highest traffic ever last year.

But the docks became clogged because of that increase and, according to employers, union slowdown tactics. The port says a shortage of the trailers that truckers use to haul goods from the ports has also snarled operations.

On Wednesday, there were five container ships anchored in San Francisco Bay, unable to dock, Zampa said. Another 12 were languishing beyond the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Oakland port delays have California almond growers in a pinch. About 70% of California almonds are exported, with nearly all of those leaving from the Port of Oakland, according to the Almond Board of California.

Small ports along the West Coast, however, have escaped the serious bottlenecks seen at the larger harbors.

They handle far less cargo and much smaller ships. Accusations of union slowdowns haven't arisen.

Kristin Decas, director of the Port of Hueneme, said the Ventura County port isn't suffering from logjams, although the recent stopping of vessel unloading has caused delays for customers.

Still, the labor dispute has Decas worried that shippers may choose to leave the West Coast, which could push larger facilities to try to poach Hueneme's business.

"This is not good for any West Coast port," she said.

The stoppage over the weekend caused some delays in unloading ships at the Port of San Diego, spokeswoman Marguerite Elicone said.

But the port's two terminals aren't backed up, she said. In fact, they'd be willing to accept some mid-size vessels unable to call at San Pedro Bay.

"We have one confirmed. It is coming next week," Elicone said. "It will be taking 4,500 pallets of citrus to South Korea."

"If this customer likes us and thinks we do a good job," she said, "they might decide to do more business with us."



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