US port cargo traffic rises ahead of labour talks

United States
Published:  12 May, 2014

Container ships packed with containers are flowing into the nation’s major West Coast ports at a frenetic pace as negotiators prepare to begin talks on a new union contract for 13,600 dockworkers, according to labour experts and an official with the US National Retail Federation.

Some officials say the rush to get cargo into West Coast seaports is a hedge against a possible labour disruption when the six-year dockworker contract expires July 1 – though some say the jitters may be unfounded. Large volumes of US salted and wet-blue hides are shipped to Asia often through west coast ports.

“Folks are worried from the industry side,” said Jonathan Gold, Vice President for supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group. “Companies are definitely looking at contingency plans, but they all come with a cost. They have to pay extra for warehousing, and shift (cargo deliveries) to the East Coast and Gulf (of Mexico) coast and then bring the cargo back west. They’re also looking at Canada and Mexico and, as a last resort, air cargo.”

Gold forecasts U.S. container volumes to rise 3.5% in May, underscoring a strong economic rebound. The boost in imports comes as the trade group forecasts a 4.1% increase in retail sales.

A lot is at stake with the twin seaports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. About 7,000 union dockworkers are employed, and more than 40% of the cargo moved into the U.S. comes through the ports complex.

Representatives of the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are scheduled to begin negotiations Monday (May 12) on a new contract. Some predict negotiations will continue well into July before a deal is reached.