Cargo volumes at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles increased for the third consecutive month in May after a lackluster February, new data shows.

In Long Beach, dockworkers and terminal operators moved 758,225 20-foot-equivalent units, or TEUs (the standard measure of shipping containers)—marking a 15.6% increase over April. LA saw a similar trend, moving 779,000 TEUs in May, a 13.2% increase from the month before.

“At mid-year we’re starting to see signs that cargo volume is on the upswing, with our busiest month since August of last year,” Port of Long Beach Executive Director Mario Cordero said in a statement. “We look forward to more positive signs in the months ahead.”

The improvement, however, still leaves both ports trailing well behind last year’s figures. For Long Beach, last month’s cargo volume was down 14.9% from the same month last year. In LA, it was down 19.5%.

During a press conference Tuesday, Port of LA Executive Director Gene Seroka said May cargo volumes were only about 6% off the port’s five-year rolling average, noting the figure is a nearly 60% improvement from February.

Year-to-date through May, cargo movement in Long Beach and LA are down 24.8% and 27.2%, respectively.

The steady month-over-month upswing at the twin ports comes amid ongoing uncertainty surrounding labor negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents West Coast dockworkers, and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminal operators and shipping companies.

“These past couple weeks have been challenging, and at times confusing, for all of us out here at the West Coast ports,” Seroka said Tuesday. “There have been claims and counterclaims and daily concerns.”

On June 1, negotiations broke down between the two parties (though talks have since resumed), Seroka said, which resulted in the rank-and-file dockworkers taking it upon themselves to stage sporadic wildcat strikes up and down the West Coast, including Long Beach and LA, the following day. Two days later, two terminals in Long Beach closed for various shifts, but those closures were not attributed to labor shortages.

The PMA then accused the union of withholding lashers (workers who secure cargo for trans-Pacific sailings and unfasten arriving cargo) beginning June 7, which was causing delays for ships both arriving and departing. The Marine Exchange of Southern California, which tracks vessel movements, confirmed that at least 10 ships were experiencing extended delays, while most others saw shorter delays of a day or two.

On June 9, the PMA said things had “generally improved,” but that the string of work actions is having a negative impact on operations. The union, for its part, said they are still working.

“Despite what you are hearing from PMA, West Coast ports are open as we continue to work under our expired collective bargaining agreement,” International President Willie Adams said in a June 10 statement.

Even during a purposeful worker slowdown, however, terminals would remain open and cargo moving.

On Monday, the PMA claimed the union had resumed its refusal to dispatch lashers, causing further delays across the San Pedro Bay ports. The Marine Exchange on Monday and Tuesday reported that 11 ships were experiencing delays due to labor shortages.

“These disruptive actions by the ILWU contrast sharply with a press release issued by the ILWU on Saturday,” the PMA stated.

The union declined to comment on the accusation, noting that the two groups “agreed to a media blackout during negotiations and we are honoring that agreement.”

The PMA and ILWU also agreed to no lockouts or work slowdowns.

“For months, the ILWU has staged disruptive work actions targeting the West Coast’s largest ports,” the PMA statement continued. “These actions have either slowed operations or shut them down altogether, impeding the supply chain and leaving ships and the American exports they carry sitting idle at the docks.”

Earlier this year, the dockworkers were accused of weaponizing lunch breaks to slow down cargo movement. Then, the PMA claimed the union was “red tagging” equipment and delaying standard dispatch practices to slow work. The union denied all accusations.

In April, 11 of the 13 San Pedro Bay container terminals closed due to labor shortages. The union claimed workers were attending a meeting, followed by the observation of Good Friday—two events that have not historically shut down the nation’s largest port complex.

Seroka noted that the port is operating at about 70%, with half the loss due to a shift in goods away from the West Coast in favor of East and Gulf coast ports as labor uncertainties continue. The other half is due to a slowdown in consumer spending on goods, in favor of services.

As talks continue between the union and employers, Seroka noted that acting Labor Secretary Julie Su is in San Francisco, talking to both sides in an effort to help talks along. This action, Seroka said, indicates that bringing these negotiations to an end quickly is a high priority of the Biden-Harris administration.

“The bottom line for us: It’s been 13 months,” Seroka said. “We need both sides to bargain in good faith and find a way to reach an agreement quickly.”

Operations at San Pedro Bay ports have improved after union labor actions, employers say

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.