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Work resumes at ports, but truckers say labor strife just one aspect of congestion

Port Pilot Brett McDaniel gets onto large cargo ships like the Hyundai Faith to direct them into The Port of Los Angeles.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
Port Pilot Brett McDaniel gets onto large cargo ships like the Hyundai Faith to direct them into The Port of Los Angeles.

Work resumed at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles Tuesday morning after the loading and unloading of ships was suspended for the holiday weekend amid ongoing labor disputes.

Port of L.A. spokesman Phillip Sanfield confirmed to KPCC the work had resumed and that there were 32 ships at anchor for both ports.

As KPCC has reported, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents shipping companies, has been battling over a new contract for roughly 20,000 dockworkers since last year.

But even if dock workers and shippers resolve their labor dispute, the gridlock of container ships waiting to unload at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles won't ease until the ports resolve logistical challenges, a trucking industry leader said Monday.

Fred Johring heads the Harbor Trucking Association of short-haul companies that move containers between export/import companies and the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

He points to the mega-ships that bring in six regular ships' worth of cargo.

"They'll have 8,000 to 10,000 containers that you're handling coming off that vessel, so they can completely plug the terminals that we have in L-A/Long Beach with one vessel," he said.

With so many more containers coming in at once, the ports and dockworkers are challenged to find a place to put it all. Containers that once were stacked three high, now get stacked five high. That means the containers boxes on the bottom and middle of the stack are more difficult and slow to extract when the owner sends a truck for them.

Those delays in retrieving containers are part of the reason port truckers who once were able to drive three loads a day to Southern California warehouses are getting just one load a day, or none.

Trucker Luis Mendez said it's not unusual for him to wait eight to ten hours to retrieve a container from the ports. He gets paid only for the loads he hauls, so his income has shrunk in the past year or so. He said he works two other jobs to get by.

The ownership of the trailer chassis used to haul containers also contributes to the port congestion, Johring said. The chassis are standard equipment, but shipping companies were limited to using chassis from specific owners. An arrangement to pool the chassis should smooth out that problem beginning in March, Johring said.

With fewer containers leaving the ports each day, some businesses are offering bonuses of $1,000 to $2,000 to trucking companies to pick up their boxes ahead of other customers' cargo, Johring said.

"Customers are begging for help," he said. They tell him, "Just get it out of the harbor because we're dying over here. Our business is going to close down if we don't have this container."

He said he doesn't take such deals because they would interfere with his regular clients' shipping.

Spokespersons for the ports of L.A. and Long Beach were not available Monday.

This story has been updated.