Containers unloaded at Port of Long Beach
Containers are unloaded at the Port of Long Beach. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

A shortage of West Coast port workers forced the busiest U.S. ocean trade gateway to largely shut on Friday, after months of strained labor negotiations between the union dock workers and their employers.

A substantial number of union workers, including operators needed to load and unload cargo, failed to show up on the job starting Thursday evening, according to the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents employers.

The maritime association said the workers were missing as a result of a coordinated action by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to withhold labor as contract talks drag on.

“The largest ILWU local on the West Coast has taken a concerted action to withhold labor at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, resulting in widespread worker shortages,” the maritime association said in a statement. “The action by the union has effectively shut down the ports.”

Instead, the ILWU said the slowdown was due to thousands of union workers attending a monthly membership meeting on Thursday evening and observing the Good Friday holiday the following day.

“Cargo operations are ongoing as longshore workers at the ports remain on the job,” ILWU Local 13, which represents union members at both ports, said in a statement.

Operators at the Port of Long Beach decided to temporarily close four of the seaport’s six terminals when workers did not show up on Friday morning, port spokesman Lee Peterson said, adding that regular operations at the seaport were expected to resume on Saturday.

Port of Los Angeles officials were communicating with both parties, along with federal, state and local officials, to “support a return to normal operations.”

Union workers at the ports have been on the job without an employment contract since the previous agreement expired on July 1, 2022, and the labor dispute has forced major retailers to shift cargo to East and Gulf Coast ports to avoid disruptions.

The union and the maritime association have recently said they reached a tentative agreement on key negotiation sticking points and were committed to resolving the contract matter expeditiously as the administration of President Joe Biden continued to meet with the groups to help facilitate a deal.

The California Retailers Association expressed concern about the supply chain and urged Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature to engage both parties.

“It is essential that the ongoing labor negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association are resolved immediately,” said Rachel Michelin, president and CEO of the association. “We call on state leaders to act quickly to prevent any further disruption to port operations and cargo fluidity.”

Reuters and City News Service contributed to this article.

Updated at 4:10 p.m., Friday, April 7, 2023

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.