Port of Oakland Shuts Down After Dockworker Dies on the Job

The Port of Oakland shut down on Tuesday after a dockworker died on the job in ongoing turmoil roiling West Coast ports.

Details about the worker’s death have not been released. All four container terminals closed after the death occurred, and remain closed for Wednesday’s daytime shift.

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Robert Bernardo, director of communications at the Port of Oakland, said the port expects marine terminals to resume operations for Wednesday’s evening shift starting at 6 p.m. PT.

The incident comes as more than 22,000 dockworkers across 29 West Coast ports are negotiating a new labor contract with ocean carriers and port terminal operators, haggling over issues like wages, safety measures and automation. The longshore workers are represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), while the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) represents the carriers and terminals.

The ILWU didn’t immediately responded to Sourcing Journal’s request for comment.

On Tuesday, the American Apparel and Footwear Association called on federal authorities to ensure port disruption didn’t drag on any longer than necessary.

“Any port closure creates backups that immediately impact the delivery of goods to stores and warehouses, which will adversely impact American consumers, workers and businesses,” said Steve Lamar, AAFA president and CEO, in a statement. “We applaud engagement from the former Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh through the negotiations earlier in this process. Avoiding any further supply chain crisis is crucial to avoid prevent damage to our economy. It is time for the Biden Administration to accelerate efforts to keep all parties at the table for speedy and fair resolution, enabling our supply chains to operate efficiently and responsibly.”

National Association of Chemical Distributors president and CEO Eric R. Byer added that the port disruption “places significant pressure on an already fragile system” and increases the prices of essential chemical goods used in nearly every U.S. industry.

“Businesses across the nation have navigated one challenge after another when it comes to the supply chain. Just as maritime trade was reaching some semblance of ‘business as usual,’ the unresolved labor contract negotiations between the PMA and ILWU have created severe disruptions and delays across several ports,” Byer said. “As chemical distributors and our customers know, the repercussions of delays and backups at the largest ports in the nation, like the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and Seattle, create additional strain and uncertainty that will be felt far beyond the actual shut downs.”

The trade executives’ comments come after several West Coast port marine terminals last week in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland and Hueneme in California, and Seattle and Tacoma in Washington, effectively shut down after dockworkers didn’t show up for assigned shift.

One expert believes the disruption will feed into East Coast cargo “growth.”

“I don’t think it’s going away,” said Dr. Chris Caplice, executive director at the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics. “Now, it’s another reason for shippers to at least diversify, especially to the Gulf. The Gulf Coast is a lot easier than going up to either Savannah or New York. I think it’s going to keep that growth that happened on the East and Gulf Coast, and bleeding some containers away from the West Coast is another reason to diversify or to put even more eggs in that other basket.”

By Monday, almost all of the ports’ marine terminals had reopened, except for two at the Port of Long Beach that shuttered during day shifts on Monday and Tuesday.

As of Wednesday morning, both the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach both said their terminals were fully operational. But the backlog from prior terminal shutdowns posed a problem for truckers as container wait times escalated over the weekend because many weren’t aware of the disruption.

For example, the median number of hours import vessels needed to unload containers at the Port of Los Angeles jumped from 6.1 on Thursday to 16.2 on Monday, according to data from Project44. And in Long Beach, this median rose from 1.3 hours on Thursday to 9.3 on Monday.

Caplice suggested that the longer unloading time is linked to “posturing” around labor negotiations.

“It feels like pre-strike posturing, in my opinion. There’s a lot of redlining of equipment. If you look closely at any piece of equipment, you can redline it for maintenance. So they’re playing that card,” Caplice told Sourcing Journal. “I think labor on the West Coast missed this window, because right now, they’re not [playing] from a position of strength, because the volume isn’t there compared to a year to 18 months ago, when it would have made a difference.”

The port problems forced the hand a railroad giant that hauls goods to and from the gateways.

On Tuesday, Union Pacific told Sourcing Journal it temporarily shut down three of its inland ramps into three terminals at the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach but operations are now back to normal.

“Our goal with this short-term pause is to ensure the rail line to and from the ports stays fluid,” a spokesperson said.

BNSF, which also provides rail service at the port, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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