Ship traffic clears up at ports
LOS ANGELES The turnaround time for container ships at the West Coast's largest ports has returned to normal a month after a labor dispute and shutdown that stranded nearly 200 ships.
But containers remain stacked high on the docks, and electronics, toys and other goods are still having trouble reaching stores across the country, officials said.
Long strings of vessels were backed up by a 10-day lockout that was ended by a federal injunction Oct. 9. At the time, industry experts estimated it would take at least six weeks to get through the backlog.
Authorities at the California ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and at Washington's Puget Sound, which includes Seattle and Tacoma, said long lines have now vanished.
"We're now declaring ourselves at the high end of normal," said Dick McKenna of the Los Angeles-Long Beach Marine Exchange, an industry cooperative that monitors ship movements.
McKenna said a decline in the number of ships entering the ports helped clear the backlog. Typically, the two ports receive about eight container ships a day, but in recent weeks the average has been about 3 1/2, he said. He said activity should build back up as shipping lines resume normal rotations, McKenna said.
However, some terminal yards remain jammed with containers and are short on equipment and labor, causing delays in the movement of cargo to customers, according to representatives of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the trucking industry.
"It's definitely improving," union spokesman Steve Stallone said. "But it will be a couple more weeks before things are really cleared up."
Retailers report little improvement thus far in getting goods they ordered from Asia, said J. Craig Shearman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation. Many retailers have been worried about running short on products during the holiday.
"If we've moved it from the ship to the dock, we've got to get it from the dock to the shelf," he said. "From what we've been hearing from retailers, merchandise is still trickling into the stores very slowly."
The hardest-hit products have been toys, consumer electronics, shoes, clothing and housewares, Shearman said. Ninety percent to 95 percent of toys and more than 50 percent of electronics sold in the United States are made in Asia, he said. More than 40 percent of shoes sold here are imported from China.
Truck traffic at the ports is still snarled, although Union Pacific reports train traffic continues to steadily improve, in large part because many shippers load train cars right from the docks.
Containers continue to be piled up on the docks while longshoremen spend more time unloading ships than organizing containers and loading them on trucks, according to the California Trucking Association.
"It's better than it was initially, but it's still chaos," association vice president Stephanie Williams said. "It's not back to normal."
The auto industry wasn't hit hard by the dispute because the Big Three auto manufacturers do not rely heavily on parts made in Asia and used air freight to get around the difficulty, said David Healy an auto industry analyst at Burnham Securities Inc.
Healy said production was back to normal, though some importers are short of cars. For example, BMW has 1,200 cars stranded in Mexico.
The union and the Pacific Maritime Association have traded blame for the slow recovery. The Justice Department is weighing evidence submitted by both sides, and might ask a federal court to issue further orders regarding the pace of work.
Meanwhile, a federal mediator has called both sides back to the bargaining table tomorrow after a weeklong break from negotiations. A tentative agreement was reached this month on the issue of technology, but pension, wages and the union's arbitration system remain unsettled.
The union represents 10,500 dockworkers, who handle about $300 billion in merchandise moving through the ports each year.