Trade Groups Urge Biden on West Coast Port Talks

Letter Presses Him to Get More Involved
Port of Long Beach
Port of Long Beach via Facebook

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A coalition of 238 national, state and local trade associations — including American Trucking Associations — wrote to President Joe Biden on March 24, urging the administration to take a more active role in the West Coast port labor negotiations.

The contract talks involve the 22,000-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents management at 29 ports and distribution centers.

“As we have witnessed, significant cargo flows have shifted away from the West Coast ports because of the uncertainty related to the labor negotiations,” the letter said. “While there certainly are other issues impacting the West Coast ports, many cargo interests have expressly stated that they shifted cargo as a result of the negotiations.”

The letter comes when, with the exception of Port Houston, container volumes are declining at major U.S. ports. Officials say the drop-off is a result of the traditional slump in the late winter and spring caused by the Lunar New Year, when manufacturing in Asia stops for several weeks, a slowing world economy and the dramatic shift from an international purchasing frenzy during the pandemic. During that time, consumers spent billions on home offices and other items as they sheltered in place.

Now economists say that as we move past COVID, there has been a return to a more traditional balance of goods and services as airlines, hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues fill up.

But in the past year, a dramatic shift from West Coast ports to facilities on the East Coast has taken place. Late last year, the Port of Los Angeles lost its title as the busiest port in the U.S. to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. In just the past 60 days, Los Angeles and Long Beach have seen their container volumes each fall 32% year-over-year when measured against 2022’s nearly record-setting year.

Despite recent seasonal declines on both coasts, Georgia’s Port of Savannah says volume is up 46% over the past five years. The port has long-term construction projects underway to expand volume from its current 6 million containers a year to 9.5 million by 2025. Other East Coast facilities, including the Port of Baltimore and South Carolina’s Port of Charleston, also have aggressive expansion plans.

The PMA and ILWU talks have been ongoing since the contract expired July 1, 2022. Management and labor have vowed there will be no lockout of workers or a strike. There has been agreement on some key issues, including medical plans for the workers, but the talks are being conducted under a strict news blackout.

However, more than a month ago, in an effort to reassure the shipping community about the status of the negotiations, the sides issued a brief joint statement, though they declined to discuss specifics.

“The parties have agreed not to discuss negotiations in the media as collective bargaining continues,” PMA and ILWU wrote. “Negotiations are not open to the media or the public, and news articles purporting to know what is happening at the bargaining table are speculative at best.”

However, the groups writing the letter to the White House want to see more progress and sooner, because they fear the movement of freight from the 29 West Coasts ports and cargo facilities may become permanent the longer the talks drag on.

“Given the turmoil of the past several years, what our supply chain needs to see right now is continuity. Unfortunately, these ongoing negotiations — seemingly with no end in sight — are adding yet another stress factor that is complicating our industry’s ability to keep goods moving in a reliable and timely fashion,” ATA President Chris Spear said. “For the sake of our country, it’s time to bring these negotiations to a close.”

The Department of Labor is without a Cabinet-level official, as former Secretary Marty Walsh recently left the Biden administration to become executive director of the National Hockey League Players Association.

Chris Spear


Biden has named Deputy Secretary Julie Su to lead the department, but she must be confirmed by the Senate.

“We applaud the engagement from former Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh through the negotiations. Now that he has departed the administration, it is critical that a new administration point person be named to continue engagement with the parties as they negotiate. With the lack of progress to date, we would also encourage the administration to offer mediation services to the parties in their negotiations,” the letter said. “The only way the parties can reach an agreement that will ensure the continued competitiveness of the ports and the supply chain stakeholders who rely upon them is to remain at the table until a new agreement is finalized.”

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