There Is Less to Biden’s Ports Deal than It Appears

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President Biden on Wednesday announced that the two main ports on the West Coast will start operating 24 hours a day to help address a major supply chain backup that was causing shortages of goods. So the problem has been solved, right? Not quite yet.  

Most international ports operate around the clock. The U.S. has long been the exception. One of the main obstacles to 24/7 operations on the West Coast was the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Its contract with the ports only allowed three work shifts that didn’t cover all 24 hours in a given day.

Biden said there had been “weeks of negotiation” with the union, retailers, freight movers, and the Port of Los Angeles to reach a deal to operate around the clock. “By staying open seven days a week, through the night and on the weekends, the Port of Los Angeles will open—over 60 extra hours a week it will be open,” he said.

What exactly did the deal entail? White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Wednesday, “The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has announced its members will work those extra shifts, adding needed capacity to clear existing backlogs.” So did the union agree to amend its contract to allow extra work shifts?

Frank Ponce De Leon, a coast committeeman with the ILWU in Los Angeles and the main spokesman for the union for the port congestion issue, indicated that nothing had changed as far as the union was concerned. He told NPR Thursday: “It’s important to let people know that our contracts allow the employers and the terminal operators to work 24 hours a day. … So it’s not something that is brand new.” De Leon added that, “The push by the Biden administration is actually a push in the direction of getting the others in the supply chain moving so we can hopefully ease up that congestion.”

The ILWU national has yet to issue an official statement on the announcement or to post anything on its Twitter feed or Facebook page. The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the west coast ocean carriers and terminal operators, gave no clue as to the details in its official statement, saying only that it “continues to be committed to working with our members to relieve congestion.”

The Port of Los Angeles was on record prior to Wednesday as supporting 24/7 operations. It had previously avoided paying overtime, however, seeing the cost as exorbitant. The Port of Long Beach, the other major West Coast port, Biden noted, has already been trying to move to 24/7 operations but still faced various problems.

To sum up, the White House announced a deal that apparently involves the workers doing extra shifts but doesn’t appear to involve altering their contracts. That implies they will be working on overtime. However, congestion was getting to the point that the ports may have had no choice but to do that anyway and were already moving in that direction. And while the lack of 24/7 operations was a significant problem at the ports, it was hardly the only one. Other problems include a lack of commercial truckers to haul stuff away and difficulty in moving and storing container ships. The deal announced this week didn’t address either of those matters.

The White House itself admitted the problem of port congestion was far from solved. “Obviously, there’s more that we will continue to press to be done as we’re looking to increase the shipment of goods moving more quickly. That’s one of the — one of the bottlenecks in the supply chain that will help address those concerns people have.” Psaki told reporters.

So, get your Christmas shopping done early folks, because the supply chains are still backed up.