July 10, 2014 9:00 AM, EDT
US Port Import Volume Surges on Union Talks
Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg News

Imports into U.S. ports may hit a five-year high this month as retailers rush in holiday goods to avoid potential disruptions as West Coast longshore workers negotiate a new labor contract.

Volumes at U.S. container ports are expected to reach 1.5 million containers this month, up 4.3% from last year, according to a statement from the National Retail Federation and Hackett Associates.

The contract between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents almost 20,000 longshore workers at 29 West Coast ports, expired on July 1. Discussions continue and the union has extended its previous six-year contract until July 11, when negotiations will resume.

“Retailers have been bringing merchandise in early for months now and will do what it takes to make sure shelves are stocked for their customers regardless of what happens during the negotiations,” said Jonathan Gold, NRF vice president for supply chain and customs policy, in the statement.

Cargo volumes are a barometer of retailers’ expectations and the NRF is forecasting a 4.1% rise in sales this year as consumer confidence rebounds and unemployment falls.

Retailers are already beginning to make alternate plans. Some importers have begun shifting cargo to East Coast ports, the statement said, citing numbers from Global Port Tracker.

The last major strike at West Coast ports was in 2012, when 600 clerical workers at the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach walked out after working without contracts for more than two years.

In 2002 employers at the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach staged a lockout after negotiations with unions failed. The ports were closed for 10 days, leading former President George W. Bush to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act to make workers return.