AAA  Dec. 2, 2014 5:40 PM ET
West Coast port slowdown won't halt holiday goods
By JUSTIN PRITCHARD, Associated Press THE ASSOCIATED PRESS STATEMENT OF NEWS VALUES AND PRINCIPLES 
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Brian Jablon poses in his warehouse in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014. Jablon, an executive vice president for Stansport Inc., say slow cargo movement through West Coast ports is hurting his camping supply business. He recently started paying a $1,000 fee for each 40-foot container of goods imported from Asia, a fee shipping lines imposed because they are not able to unload goods as quickly. "Those extra costs are taking away any profit we had," said Jablon. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
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(AP) — Labor strife on the West Coast waterfront isn't going to steal Christmas.

With few exceptions, gifts and other holiday products made in Asia and shipped through U.S. sea ports already have made it to shelves — or are at distribution centers and ready to roll. Still, cargo is struggling to get through the nation's largest ports, which handle billions of dollars of goods on an average day.

One issue has been the discord between dockworkers at 29 ports from San Diego to Seattle and their employers. Their contract expired in July, and negotiations over a new one turned tough this fall after employers accused dockworkers of slowing down to gain bargaining leverage.

Full negotiating teams from the Pacific Maritime Association and International Longshore and Warehouse Union met Tuesday afternoon for the first time in nearly two weeks.

Public pressure for an agreement has been mounting, though the White House has said it will not intervene.

The union and employers have a contentious history, including a lockout during 2002 contract negotiations that required federal action to resolve.

As was the case then, the maritime association accuses dockworkers of intentionally slowing work or not providing full crews. The union says its members have been working safely and that the bigger problem is a shortage of truck beds to carry containers from the docks to markets.

At the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, the nation's largest, the time between a ship docking and when a container was available for pickup more than doubled to about 80 hours from September 2013 to September 2014, according to data from INTTRA, which tracks global trade for shipping lines. On a typical day in recent weeks, about a dozen ships have sat at anchor awaiting a berth, according to data from the Marine Exchange of Southern California.

While both work pace and equipment shortages are a factor, retailers say most holiday goods are making it safely through the ports. At greatest risk would be the restocking of "must-have" toys or other surprise sellers.

In those cases, importers might opt for air delivery, which is about 10 times more expensive, said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain at the National Retail Federation.

Those stores are "pretty much eating the cost at this point," Gold said.

Problems at the ports are rippling through the economy. Truckers aren't getting paid as much because they are hauling fewer loads, exporters of Washington state apples say they're losing tens of millions of dollars each week as shipments languish, and importers are paying to store containers in dockside yards.

Los Angeles-based Stansport Inc., which sells camping equipment and play tents for children, recently started paying a $1,000 fee for each 40-foot container of goods. The fee was passed on by Stansport's shipping agent, which said shipping lines had imposed it.

"Those extra costs are taking away any profit we had," said Brian Jablon, the company's executive vice president.

He worried he'll lose sales when products that retailers need to restock shelves after the holidays have not arrived. He can't fill one order he just got from a major retailer, he said, because "the stuff is on the water somewhere."

Knowing past difficulties between West Coast dockworkers and their employers, Jablon and others tried to avoid disruptions with advanced planning. But West Coast ports are such an important link to Asia that some importers have little choice.

Trade patterns will change, given the latest disruptions, according to one veteran supply chain expert.

Some retailers already are telling suppliers to go through East Coast ports if possible, according to Hector Rodriguez, president of Active Freight & Logistics.

"They're looking at this and saying, 'Why go through that?' " Rodriguez said.

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Contact Justin Pritchard at http://twitter.com/lalanewsman .

Associated Press
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