Imports plunged at West Coast ports amid labor dispute

West Coast ports see major declines in imports, while East and Gulf coast see uptick

Months of congestion at West Coast ports -- the result of a labor dispute and other logistical problems -- led to major shifts in U.S. trade patterns.

Import data for the first two months of this year show that the volume of container cargo coming into West Coast ports plummeted nearly 18% compared with the same period last year, according to the trade research firm Zepol. At the same time, the amount of cargo coming into East and Gulf coast ports grew by 10%.

The numbers put a precise face on what retailers, farmers and manufacturers have known for months: Persistent delays at West Coast ports have forced businesses to find workarounds for their shipments.

"It's a financial and a timing issue," said Paul Rasmussen, chief executive of Zepol, which analyzes trade data. "These companies are doing whatever they can to get their products in."

Retailers have complained for months about delays at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. There are many causes: A surge in imports, the arrival of massive container ships that overwhelm docks with cargo and shortages of truck trailers needed to haul containers out of the port.

Alongside the infrastructure issues, shipping companies and dockworkers with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union were embroiled in a months-long contract dispute that was resolved last month.

Both sides traded barbs over causes for the delays: Shipping companies accused dockworkers of staging a work slowdown to gain leverage in contract talks, while the local union in Southern California countered that employers failed to train enough crane operators to safely manage higher workloads.

Shipping companies halted the unloading of ships at night beginning in January, and also dramatically cut shifts during the President's Day weekend last month. The companies said the cutbacks were meant to prevent overcrowding on already congested docks, while the union argued it was part of a negotiating tactic.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together account for some 40% of the nation's incoming container cargo, both saw declines of about 20% in January and February compared with a year earlier. The port of Savannah, Ga., on the other hand, saw a 20% jump in cargo volume, while the port of New Orleans saw a 52% increase from a year earlier.

The Port of New York and New Jersey -- traditionally the nation's third-largest port -- imported more container cargo than the Port of Long Beach for two months in a row, the first time that has happened in nearly a decade, Rasmussen said. The Port of Los Angeles still ranked No. 1 the last two months, despite the drop in imports.

The dramatic drop in cargo on the West Coast is likely to be temporary, Rasmussen said, but developments such as the widening of the Panama Canal could continue to change the patterns of global trade. 

Although container traffic through West Coast ports has surged since the 1980s, surpassing the historically dominant East Coast, Pacific ports have slowly lost market share over the last decade to ports on the Atlantic. 

"It'll be a slow and gradual thing," Rasmussen said. "But you hop ahead five or 10 years, and it's going to be a very different flow of goods than what we see today."

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