Gabriel Suarez gets plenty of downtime at work. Too much, in fact.
He had already spent three hours waiting in his truck outside the Port of Oakland when I caught up with him this week.
“Usually it takes five or six hours. Yesterday, it took 16 hours. One load,” said Suarez, 52, who drives to the port daily for Rocha Transportation in Modesto.
It’s a story told by truck drivers, truck owners, shipping companies and port officials up and down the West Coast. It raises costs and pits truckers against longshoremen and, sometimes, truckers against truckers. It has U.S. retailers and exporters on edge and, if not addressed, could threaten West Coast container ports including Oakland, the nation’s fifth largest, with a major loss of business.
“The problems we’re seeing now are greater than any we have seen in the past 20 years,” said Cory Peters, vice president of drayage operations at Manteca’s Gardner Trucking, one of the dozens of trucking companies transporting containers in and out of the port daily.
At root is a system in which steamship lines, terminal operators, subcontractors, import and export companies, trucking companies, drivers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union operate in what might politely be called silos, often with conflicting interests. Drawn-out contract negotiations between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association, representing the shippers at 29 West Coast ports, interspersed by walkouts and slowdowns, haven’t helped matters.
“It’s absolute madness,” said Peters. “The current system as set up is not sustainable.”
Worst hit are the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two biggest container ports in the United States. Some of their cargo has been diverted to Oakland, which has contributed to a growth in traffic to the port. Ironically, that uptick in business is at least partly responsible for the delays.
“We’ve gotten more stacked up over the past couple of weeks, with schedules all over the place,” said Beth Frisher, manager of business development and international marketing at the Port of Oakland. The “snowball effect” from Southern California, she said, has “had collateral impacts up the coast.”
The Port of Oakland, like ports in Southern California and elsewhere on the West Coast, serves as the landlord, leasing terminals to private operators, providing and maintaining facilities and marketing the port’s assets (deep water, road and rail transit, gateway to Asia) to potential customers the world over. But it has little authority over how its domain functions day-to-day.
Working hard
“We’re working as hard as possible to improve the situation,” said Frisher. Measures include extending operating hours, opening gates at night, reconfiguring container yards to improve cargo flow, having the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office help manage traffic outside the gate, and meeting with truckers and shippers to see what else the port can do. “We’re being proactive,” said Frisher.
Those on the shipping end of the business tend to point fingers at the ILWU. Union officials say congestion is endemic and has made working conditions much more dangerous. Assuming a contract agreement is reached — the two sides are talking — dockside operations will likely become somewhat smoother.
But labor is just one part of the equation. “West Coast ports have been congested nearly all year, with the labor dispute exacerbating the problem only in the past few weeks,” said Jock O’Connell, an international trade analyst at Beacon Economics in Los Angeles and editor of the monthly California Trade Report. “The Port of Oakland has actually been less congested than the San Pedro Bay ports.”
But damage has been done, and the image of West Coast ports has taken a hit. Fruit for export rotting on Washington state trees for want of access to an outbound steamer; Christmas trees from the Pacific Northwest not getting to Asia this season because a jammed-up Port of Tacoma turned them away; 2,600 tons of frozen french fries destined for the McDonald’s Japanese market flown by air and shipped via East Coast ports; “congestion surcharges” imposed by shipping companies on exporters and importers; similar charges imposed by truck companies for the hours-long delays at the terminals.
“Probably the most serious consequence of the congestion is the damage being done to the reputations of U.S. West Coast ports as reliable and efficient gateways for trans-Pacific trade,” said O’Connell.
“There is a growing danger that West Coast ports may see not only a drop in market share but an actual decline in volume,” he said. “And that would have perilous consequences for the armies of logistics-sector workers whose jobs are directly tied to maritime trade.”
‘A lot of anger’
Tell that to the truckers waiting outside the terminal gates. “There’s a lot of anger,” said Juan Rendon, 36, of Fresno, sitting in his truck behind Suarez. Some anger is directed at the longshoremen, who, truckers say, don’t make their lives easier. And some anger, when frustration boils over, is directed at each other. “There have been a lot of fights,” said Rendon, who owns his own truck. “They know that in there.”
Craig Merillees, communications director for ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco, said, “Occasional conflicts between workers on the docks are the results of terrible inequities and injustices created by the employers who exploit and profit from these differences.”
“It’s really messed up,” Suarez said. “There’s just too much stress right now. Something is not normal. I know drivers who are looking for another job.”