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Multiple Problems Cause Congestion at Busiest US Port Complex

The Christmas season is the best time of year for Liang Liang’s wholesale business in Southern California — if he has merchandise to sell.

His customers are asking for merchandise now, but he can’t get it. "I feel very helpless,” he said.

Liang is still waiting for cargo that arrived at the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex at the start of the month. It usually takes two days to a week to receive it. But now he has no idea when the goods will clear the port.

The Long Beach and Los Angeles ports make up the busiest container port complex in the U.S. Port officials say there are several reasons why it is experiencing congestion. One problem involves the wheeled frames called chassis that hold the shipping containers.

Port of Long Beach spokesman Lee Peterson said the chassis haven’t been where they need to be for trucks to move the containers.

“Up until the last couple of years, the chassis were owned by the shipping companies," he said. "But in the recent years, the shipping companies have decided not to own those chassis, so now those are owned by fleets, who are still working on their system for supplying those chassis to the truckers in the terminals as they’re needed.”

Another reason for the congestion: Cargo ships up to 50 percent bigger than those of a few years ago are arriving with more containers, but there are fewer truck drivers to haul the containers away, said Craig Merrilees of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

“The conditions are so bad, the pay is so low, and the problems are so serious for these workers that they’re quitting,” Merrilees said.

Truck driver Martin Solis is thinking of retiring.

“It’s hard for drivers to make money in here,” he said.

Solis said it usually takes two to four hours to drop off and pick up cargo at the port. On a recent day, though, it took nine hours.

He said the port congestion is made worse by contract negotiations between the Pacific Maritime Association — the organization that represents shipping companies — and the union for West Coast port workers.

“The [union] guys who work at the machines are supposed to start at 8 o’clock. ... They appear to start work, like, 8:45,” he said.

The shipping companies said the union has refused to dispatch hundreds of skilled workers to the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports. The union’s Merrilees said that's not accurate.

“Those are exaggerations and distortions — trying to point the finger at the union when in fact the industry and employers have been responsible for massive congestion problems," he said. "People are frustrated. They’re upset. They feel they’re being scapegoated, and I can imagine why in some cases they may not feel like they owe their employer 100 percent.”

The Pacific Maritime Association said there are also union slowdowns in other West Coast ports just before the holiday shopping season. Port officials said that by this time of year, most of the holiday cargo is already in warehouses and stores. But Liang is still waiting for his holiday merchandise.

“The cargo I want can’t get here," he said. And when the season is over, he can't sell off his merchandise.

Liang can do nothing but wait as contract negotiations continue and the other problems persist at the ports.