- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

LOS ANGELES A backlog of import containers at West Coast ports has many U.S. retailers upset that toys, shoes, televisions and other goods are not moving fast enough from ships to shelves.

"There are an awful lot of Christmas presents sitting out on those docks," said J. Craig Shearman, spokesman for the National Retail Federation.

While dockworkers returned to the job last week after a two-week lockout, shipping line officials say longshoremen are delaying the unloading of container ships onto trucks and trains.

Acknowledging that goods are not moving at their normal pace, the union representing 10,500 longshoremen at 29 major West Coast ports said shippers caused the slowdown, partly by closing the ports in the first place.

Ports also are not providing the necessary equipment to unload ships, according to the union.

"For us, it doesn't matter what the reason," Mr. Shearman said. "The fact remains the goods aren't coming into the stores as quickly as we need them."

Exporters also are being hurt. Many worry that if the slowdown persists and a required cooling-off period ends with another lockdown or strike, customers in Pacific Rim countries will start to look elsewhere for agricultural products, machine parts and other goods.

Orange and grapefruit growers are especially concerned that their exports to Asia for the Chinese New Year, which begins Feb. 1, could be held up. Navel oranges will be ready for shipping at the end of December and early January, just as the cooling-off period ends.

"If a strike happens then, it would be very disruptive," said Russ Hanlin, vice president of International Sales at Sunkist Growers, a marketing cooperative.

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies and port terminal operators, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been engaged in contentious contract negotiations since spring.

The acrimony between the two sides culminated in a lockout of dockworkers Sept. 29. The shipping lines accused the longshoremen of a work slowdown, but the union said it was working according to safety regulations, which slowed the pace.

The 10-day lockout, estimated to cost the nation's economy about $1 billion a day, ended Oct. 9 after a judge ordered the West Coast ports reopened.

When the lockout ended, about 200 container ships were docked or anchored off the Pacific coast. At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the world's third busiest, many of those ships remain stuck in the backlog.

This week, the shipping lines filed documents with the U.S. Department of Justice accusing longshoremen of a deliberate slowdown since returning to work. They said longshoremen are working 34 percent below the normal work rate in Oakland and 9 percent less at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

Other slowdown rates include 29 percent in Portland, Ore., 27 percent in Seattle and 19 percent in Tacoma, Wash., the association said.

The figures compare the number of containers longshoremen moved on and off a vessel each hour at a particular port before and after the lockout.

The union blames the gridlock on unsafe working conditions and disorganized terminal operators.

Anticipating the difficulty in receiving goods, many retailers, especially large chains such as Wal-Mart and large toy retailers, accelerated delivery of holiday merchandise during the summer.

Smaller toy stores, which are dependent on a chain of wholesalers and distributors and are less able to reroute shipments to other ports, are more likely to suffer if products aren't delivered by Thanksgiving.

"It is iffy at the moment," said Marcia Bernsten, shopkeeper at Saturday's Child, an independent toy retailer in Chicago. "We're just kind of waiting and watching and doing what we can to make substitutions of stuff coming from the East Coast."

Domestic toy manufacturers have reported backlogs in deliveries from West Coast ports but not enough yet to significantly affect the holiday shopping season.

Hasbro Inc. recently said it expects to be up to date on deliveries within seven to 10 days. The company also devised a contingency plan for the first quarter of 2003 in case the dock-labor situation deteriorates.

Mattel recently said it has merchandise worth about $75 million to $100 million at wholesale volume values stuck on the water. It worries that retailers may cancel orders if goods don't arrive on time, and has begun to selectively ship certain toys by air.

The delay in unloading ships even affected the World Series.

As part of a "Memorable Moments" promotion sponsored by Master Card, about 57,000 disposable cameras were supposed to have been given to fans at Game 4 in San Francisco Wednesday night.

The cameras, shipped from Hong Kong, are in a container on a ship that arrived at the Port of Los Angeles on Oct. 15. Because of the backlog, the small company that ordered the cameras has been told the ship won't be unloaded until Nov. 1.

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