As the dockers near the end of the contract, many more have an interest

LOS ANGELES — David Alvarado raced south along the freeway, looking through the windshield of his tractor-trailer at the towering cranes...


LOS ANGELES — David Alvarado raced south along the freeway, looking through the windshield of his tractor-trailer at the towering cranes along the coast.

He had made the same 30-minute trip to the Port of Los Angeles twice that day; if things were going well, he would do it twice more. Mr. Alvarado has learned that an average of four pickups and deliveries a day is what it takes to give his wife and three children a comfortable life.

“It’s been my life – it’s helped me support a family,” said Mr. Alvarado, who for 17 years hauled goods between Southern California warehouses and the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, a global hub that handles 40% of the country’s maritime imports.

He withstood the hit to his paycheck at the start of the pandemic as he idled for six hours a day, waiting for cargo to be loaded from ships and onto his truck. Now the ports are bustling again, but there’s a new cause for concern: the impending expiration of the union contract for West Coast dockworkers.

If negotiations fail to avert a slowdown, strike or lockout, he said, “it will crush me financially.”

The outcome will be crucial not just for union dockworkers and port operators, but also for the ecosystem of workers surrounding ports like Mr. Alvarado, and for a global supply chain reeling from coronavirus shutdowns and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Skyrocketing inflation to the highest rate in more than four decades is due, in part, to supply chain complications.

The contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 22,000 workers at 29 ports from San Diego to Seattle, and the Pacific Maritime Association, representing marine terminals, is due to expire on Friday. Syndicate members mainly use machines like cranes and forklifts that move cargo containers on and off ships.

In a statement this month, representatives from both sides said they did not expect a deal by the deadline, but were committed to working on a deal.

Negotiations have largely focused on whether to raise wages for unionized workers, whose average salaries are in the six figures, and the expansion of automation, such as the use of robots to move containers freight, to speed up production, a priority for shipping companies.

“Automation allows for greater densification of existing port terminals, enabling greater throughput of cargo and continued growth in cargo over time,” said Jim McKenna, chief executive of the Pacific Maritime Association, in a recent statement. Negotiation video.

In an open letter posted on Facebook last month, union president Willie Adams attacked the move to automation, saying it would result in job losses and prioritize foreign profits over ” what’s best for America.”

“Automation,” Mr. Adams wrote, “poses a great national security risk because it puts our ports at risk of being hacked as other automated ports have experienced.”

As negotiations, which began in early May, continue, record levels of freight have arrived here.

In May, the Port of Los Angeles experienced its third busiest month in its history, handling nearly one million shipping container units, largely supplied by imports from Asia. Twenty-one ships were waiting to dock outside local ports this week, up from 109 in January, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California.

On a recent trip here, President Biden – who last year authorized a plan to keep the Port of Los Angeles open 24 hours a day – met with negotiators to ask for a quick deal. Leaders on both sides say Mr Biden has been working behind the scenes on the issue, hoping to avoid delays.

When a breakdown in talks resulted in an 11-day lockdown in 2002, the US economy lost an estimated $11 billion. President George W. Bush eventually intervened and the lockout was lifted. In 2015, as negotiations dragged on for nine months, the Obama administration stepped in after the standoff led to slow work and congestion at West Coast ports.

Mr. Biden’s early intervention could help avoid serious backlogs, said Geraldine Knatz, professor of policy and engineering practice at the University of Southern California.

“In the past, the federal government would step in at the end when negotiations were at an impasse,” said Ms. Knatz, who served as executive director of the Port of Los Angeles from 2006 to 2014. “The relationship that has developed between ports and the Biden administration in the wake of the supply chain crisis is something that did not exist before.

Even so, contingency plans are in place, said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation. Some retailers began increasing their schedules months ago, ordering supplies well before they were needed, he said, and using ports along the east and Gulf coasts when possible. .

In an interview, Gene Seroka, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said he did not believe the impending contract expiration would cause any delays: All parties involved, he said, know that is already an exceptionally busy time for the Region.

Retail imports account for 75% of all goods entering ports, and with the back-to-school and holiday shopping seasons approaching, Mr. Seroka said he does not expect the volumes of goods decline to more typical levels until next year.

“Everyone is working as hard as they can,” Mr. Seroka said.

But for some retailers, the current limbo brings up painful memories.

In early 2015, as delays arose in contract negotiations, Charlie Woo laid off more than 600 seasonal workers from his company, Megatoys.

“It was tough back then,” Mr. Woo said on a recent morning from his 330,000-square-foot warehouse in Commerce, Calif., an industrial town in Los Angeles County not far from the ports.

Mr. Woo started Megatoys in 1989 and now imports around 1,000 cargo containers from China every year. The 40-foot containers are filled with small toys like plastic Easter eggs and miniature rubber footballs and basketballs, which its employees pack into baskets sold in grocery stores and major outlets like Walmart. and Target.

During the pandemic disruptions last fall, some of his shipments were blocked for almost three months – delays that ultimately resulted in a 5% drop in sales for his business, which Mr Woo says reports. tens of millions of dollars a year.

He is preparing for another difficult year.

“I expect problems; I just don’t know how big the problem will be,” said Woo, who also has a manufacturing facility near Shenzhen, China, and said he hoped more US terminals would move to more. automation.

“We need to find innovative solutions to catch up with ports in Asia,” Woo said.

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Alvarado, the truck driver, reminisced about the early days of the career he was born into.

During summer vacation when he was a little boy, he drove a shotgun with his father, who drove a tractor-trailer for nearly four decades around the ports, and they watched Dodger baseball games together.

“That’s all I ever wanted to be,” said Mr. Alvarado, 38. Over the years he has seen many childhood friends move out because they couldn’t afford to live here.

It hasn’t always been easy for him either. Last fall, with more than 80 cargo carriers anchored off the coast here, in part due to the lingering pandemic and a surge in imports ahead of the holiday season, it sometimes waited hours before having finally a load, said Mr. Alvarado, who is one of about 21,000 truckers authorized to pick up goods at ports.

For an independent contractor, time is money: Mr. Alvarado works 16 hour shifts on some weekdays and aims to pick up and drop off four loads a day. When he does it regularly, he says, he can earn up to $4,000 a week, before expenses.

During the worst delays of the pandemic, he was lucky to receive two loads a day, and although things have improved in recent months, he is now worried about fuel prices.

“Inflation has been intense,” he said.

Filling up with 220 gallons for the week now typically costs $1,200, double what it was several months ago, Alvarado said.

“It all starts to add up,” he said. “You wonder if you should think about doing something else.”

As for the prospects for the labor negotiations, Alvarado said he was trying to remain optimistic. The unionized workers, he said, remind him of his own family: men and women of working-class upbringing, many of whom are Latino and have deep family ties to the ports. A work stoppage would also be painful for many of them.

“It will hurt all Americans,” he said.

As he drove past the ports, Mr. Alvarado turned his truck into a warehouse parking lot, where the multicolored containers lined the asphalt like a row of neatly arranged Lego blocks.

It was his third load of the day, and for this round he didn’t have to wait for stevedores to load the carrier onto his truck. Instead, he supported his semi-trailer on a chassis and the blue container fell into place.

He opened Google Maps on his iPhone and looked at the distance to the drop point in Fontana, California: 67 miles, one and a half hours.

It could, Mr Alvarado said, end up being a four-load day after all.

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Newsrust - US Top News: As the dockers near the end of the contract, many more have an interest
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