By ROBERT JABLON Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A contract between shipping companies and 22,000 West Coast longshore workers expired over the weekend. But both sides continued to talk, saying they want to avoid a strike that could wreck an economy already stressed by rising inflation and supply chain problems.
The contract that expired last Friday covered workers at ports from California to Washington state that handle nearly 40% of US imports.
“While there will be no contract extension, cargo will continue to move and normal operations will continue at the ports until an agreement can be reached,” said a joint statement from the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. .
The ILWU is the union that represents Pacific longshore workers, and the Pacific Maritime Association is a trade group for freight forwarders and terminal operators. Its members include global shipping giants such as Maersk and Evergreen Marine.
The talks are so crucial that President Joe Biden even weighed in last month, meeting with both sides in Los Angeles. They are being carried out in the context of a surge in imports that left ships anchored offshore behind schedule and a decline in exports.
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Both sides said last month they weren’t planning any work stoppages, but US industries are clearly concerned.
In a letter to Biden issued hours before the latest contract expired, some 150 trade groups, from truckers to agriculture, chemical and toy industries, urged the administration to work with both sides to extend the current contract, negotiate in good faith and agree to avoid actions. that further disrupt the ports.
The letter emphasized that groups are entering their peak import season as retailers stock up on fall vacation and back-to-school items.
“We continue to expect cargo flows to remain at record highs, putting further pressure on the supply chain and driving up inflation,” the letter said. “Many expect these challenges to continue for the rest of the year.”
An important topic in the talks is the automation of port facilities. The union argues it will cost the jobs of crane operators and other workers, who can earn $100,000 or more a year. The Pacific Maritime Association argues that automation will actually increase employment by allowing ports to move more cargo.
Ports have already been struggling to handle container traffic, much of it from Asia, where ports are heavily automated.
After the COVID-19 pandemic began to take hold in 2020, cargo traffic to ports plummeted dramatically. But then it picked up and has been booming ever since. Rising demand has caused traffic jams at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which moved some 20 million cargo containers in 2021 alone. The ports, collectively known as the San Pedro Bay Port Complex, alone handle more than 30% of the US’s containerized waterborne imports and exports.
In January, about 100 ships were waiting to enter the port complex, but that total has now dropped to 60 or even 20 at times, Long Beach Port Executive Director Mario Cordero said Tuesday.
Cargo is loaded and unloaded 16 hours a day, on average, Cordero said. However, ports must have a “24/7 mentality” to deal with Asian traffic, where ports operate 24 hours a day, he said.
The contracts are renegotiated every six years, and Cordero said most have concluded without interruption.
However, a lockout in 2002 and an eight-day strike in 2015 cost the US economy billions of dollars and forced the administrations of then-Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to intervene.
Cordero said he had not seen any delays in work at the port and was optimistic that the current negotiations would end with a fairly quick resolution.
“The world looks to us to make sure we’re moving cargo,” he said. “I think the administration has made it clear that they expect a … reasonable outcome.”
Unionized dockworkers are also seeking a raise, arguing that shipping lines can afford it. With global demand, overseas freight shipping companies are making record profits.
Last month, Biden signed the Shipping Reform Act, aimed at making it cheaper to ship goods across the oceans, and criticized the concentration of corporate shipping in the hands of nine foreign-owned companies.
“These operators made $190 billion in profits in 2021, seven times more than the previous year,” Biden said. “The cost was passed on, as you might guess, directly to consumers, keeping it in the hands of American families and businesses because they could.”
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