Although negotiators for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies and port terminal operators, reached an agreement last Friday evening, the issue is far from settled.

 

For one thing, the five-year agreement was between negotiators who don’t have the authority to reach a final deal—the full membership of both sides must vote. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s (ILWU) 13,000 voting members may make their decision in April, however the timing has not yet been decided. The maritime association has not said when it expects its members to vote either.

 

In the meantime, work did begin at nearly all West Coast ports this week, as crews began to load and unload waiting cargo ships. The exception Monday was the Port of Oakland, where problems persisted. At that port, the issue was what port spokesman Mike Zampa called a “temporary shortage of experienced crane operators,” an AP story reported. He said at the time the port officials expected experienced crane operators to return soon.

 

Operations at the other West Coast ports, from Seattle to Southern California, appeared to be back to normal. It’s important to note though, that restoring the flow of goods will take weeks—and most likely three months at the Port of Los Angeles, which is the nation’s largest port.

 

That’s because there is such an enormous backlog of containers. Put in a line, the cargo containers sitting on ships off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Monday morning would stretch 731 miles, according to the AP article. There are smaller, though substantial, backups in San Francisco Bay and Washington’s Puget Sound as well.

 

“We’re estimating anywhere from four to eight weeks before we can get past the backlogs,” Lee Peterson, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach said in an article in USA Today. “We’ll be running two shifts a day.”

 

That backlog is the result of two main causes. As the contract dispute wore on, ILWU workers allegedly began slowing their work. The companies that operate marine terminals responded by locking out many workers. The consequence was that while major ports never closed fully, the work stoppages created the container backlog.

 

What’s to stop all that from happening again in five years? Well, nothing. Unlike most unions in the U.S., the longshoremen have actually become more powerful over the last few decades of growing trade because they increasingly control the movement of a larger percentage of the economy. What’s more, the threat of business interruption is the only thing that gives a union leverage, so it would seem likely the same situation could appear when the proposed contract is up—if it’s agreed to this spring.

 

On the other hand, that’s not to say the majority of goods coming into or leaving the U.S. must go through the West Coast ports, because there are other options. For instance, ports in Canada and Mexico are working to deepen harbors so they too may attract Pacific Rim business. Furthermore, with the widening of the Panama Canal project nearing completion, Gulf Coast and East Coast port authorities will certainly try to lure cargo shipments that are eventually headed their way to consider using their ports in the first place, in which case they could simply bypass the West Coast ports altogether.

 

What are your thoughts on the supply chain disruptions at the West Coast ports? Have the ports become a risk that now must be considered?