Cargo volumes at the Port of Long Beach decreased by almost one-third in March compared to the same month last year, according to data released Wednesday.
Dockworkers and terminal operators moved 603,878 20-foot-equivalent units (the standard measure of shipping containers) last month, down 30% from March 2022—the busiest March on record for the 112-year-old port. Imports decreased 34.7% to 279,148 TEUs, while exports increased 16.9% to 133,512 TEUs.
The number of empty containers moved through the port declined 40.5% to 191,218 TEUs.
“Warehouses remain full and fewer cargo containers are crossing the docks because consumer spending remains slow,” Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero said in a statement. “We are ready for a rebound in retail as we work with our industry partners to recapture market share.”
While part of the blame falls on the overall economy, with inflation further shifting consumer spending from goods to services, port officials acknowledged that another glaring problem the facility faces is the continued shift of shippers away from the West Coast to East and Gulf coast ports. Last year, the Port of New York and New Jersey was the second-busiest container seaport in the U.S., a rank held for decades by Long Beach.
In February, New York-New Jersey outperformed both Long Beach and Los Angeles—the No. 1 port in the nation. The East Coast port moved 823,256 TEUs in February, nearly 41% more than Long Beach and over 51% more than LA.
Last month, LA moved about 20,000 more TEUs than Long Beach, a significant bump from February when it trailed Long Beach by over 50,000 TEUs.
Year-to-date, Long Beach has moved 1,721,325 TEUs, compared to LA’s 1,837,094 TEUs. Long Beach’s first-quarter figure marks a 30% decrease from the same period last year.
New York-New Jersey has not yet released its March data, but it is likely the East Coast operation will continue moving more cargo than the West Coast ports—at least until a resolution is found in the highly contentious labor negotiations between the union representing West Coast dockworkers and the association for shippers and terminal operators.
Negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association began almost a year ago in May, with the previous labor contract expiring July 1 of last year.
Cargo moved uninterrupted through the twin ports as negotiations continued behind closed doors and under a media blackout. In the last two months, however, union members have taken actions that could be construed as “wildcat strikes”—work stoppages without the consent of union representatives, which require official member votes to authorize a strike.
Earlier this month, 11 of the 13 container terminals at the ports of Long Beach and LA shut down for a full day due to not having enough workers on site. Non-unionized workers who did show up for work were sent home.
While the PMA claims the workers were sending a message amid contract negotiations, union leaders stated workers first attended a Thursday night union meeting to witness newly elected President Gary Herrera being sworn in and then were observing Good Friday the following day, which they said explains the mass absence from terminals.
When asked why other meetings, which are held monthly, and previous Good Fridays and other holidays have not shut down the ports, union leaders did not respond.
In March, the employers’ association accused workers of using their lunch breaks to cause disruptions, claiming they used to be staggered to ensure work was continuous rather than shutting down for an hour. Herrera, however, recently told the Business Journal that workers realized they were not being paid when they worked through their lunch hours, so they have opted to take them in full.
Finally, last week, the PMA accused the ILWU of delaying the standard dispatch process, which slows the start of port operations in the morning. The ILWU did not respond to request for comment regarding the situation.
Union members have cited record profits that have been raked in by ocean carriers. In October, Drewry Supply Chain Advisors forecasted that ocean carriers would make $270 billion in profits in 2022—$70 billion more than 2021 and five times what they made in 2020.
The ports, for their part, have no part in the labor negotiations but are merely landlords with terminal operators as their long-term tenants. Despite the turmoil between the union and employers, the ports continue to push toward the future.
“We continue to invest in our infrastructure projects and look for ways to efficiently and sustainably move cargo so our customers, new and old, are reminded why we are the Port of Choice,” Long Beach Harbor Commission President Sharon Weissman said in a statement. “We will be ready when cargo volumes are on the rise again.”