Analysts say it might be six to 10 weeks before the cargo backlog caused by a 10-day lockout at West Coast ports can be cleared in the aftermath of the labor dispute that stranded billions of dollars in merchandize
and created an armada of more than 200 ships waiting offshore at 29 ports.
And now, merchandisers must wade through thousands of containers, decide which items to ship first and then scramble to find trucks and trains to deliver the goods to markets and manufacturers.
The 10,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union reported to hiring halls at 6 p.m. Wednesday to begin shifts, ending a lockout that began Sept. 29, shutting down ports from San Diego to Seattle and costing the nation's fragile economy up to $2 billion a day.
Dockworkers were expected to work around the clock, with other shifts scheduled to begin at 3 and 8 this morning, according to wire and news services.
Among the first cargo to be shipped will be perishables like seafood, meat and produce in refrigerated containers aboard some of the more than 200 ships anchored off the coast. After that, shipping companies will set their own priorities based on their customers' needs and demand for cargo.
The critical challenges will be lining up transportation on trucks, trains and planes, and finding enough longshoremen for the expected round-the-clock work, said John Pachtner, a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping companies and terminal operators.
The lockout began Sept. 29 after the maritime association accused union members of an illegal slowdown during contract talks. The dispute centers on the use of new waterfront technology that the union believes would eliminate jobs.
On Tuesday, President Bush became the first president in a quarter-century to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, which allows a president to ask a federal court to stop a strike or lockout that imperils the nation's health and safety. A federal judge in San Francisco issued the injunction.
The maritime association said employers would be looking for hundreds of additional workers. But even if all available workers labored at record pace, it could take up to 10 weeks to clear the backlog, association president Joseph Miniace said.
Meanwhile, some truckers said they would wait until the docks were working again before deciding how to proceed.
"A lot of drivers aren't going to go because it will be backed up," said Stephanie Williams of the California Trucking Assn.
The truckers are a key link in the transportation chain because they haul cargo between the waterfront and inland storage points.
October is typically a busy importing month for retailers who receive much of their shipments then for the November-December holiday season. Many retailers moved up shipments and some resorted to costly air cargo to ensure shelves would be stocked through Halloween and into November.