By Tori Richards
LONG BEACH, California — Crane operators who belong to a powerful union and earn up to $250,000 a year transferring containers from ships to trucks are worsening the supply chain crisis that threatens Christmas by goofing off on the job, frustrated truckers told the Washington Examiner.
The finger-pointing at the busy Los Angeles County ports comes as hundreds of container ships are anchored off the California coast, waiting in some cases for weeks to unload their freight. The Biden administration has scrambled to get shipping executives, port officials, and labor to tackle the problem, which threatens to devastate the economy.
While the reasons for the burgeoning backlog are diverse and complex, truck drivers say not everyone seems to be working to overcome it.
“In 15 years of doing this job, I’ve never seen them work slower,” said Antonio, who has spent hours waiting at Los Angeles County ports for cargo to be loaded. “The crane operators take their time, like three to four hours to get just one container. You can’t say anything to them, or they will just go [help] someone else.”
The Washington Examiner spoke to six truck drivers near the Long Beach/Terminal Island entry route, and each described crane operators as lazy, prone to long lunches, and quick to retaliate against complaints. The allegations were backed up by a labor consultant who has worked on the waterfront for 40 years. None of the truckers interviewed for this story wanted to provide a last name because they fear reprisals at the ports.
The crane operators are part of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which also represents longshoremen. Veteran operators who have a set schedule make approximately $250,000 a year, while others who receive daily work assignments make $200,000, said labor consultant Jim Tessier, who represents longshoremen in disputes against the union.© Provided by Washington ExaminerA Hong Kong cargo ship is unloaded in Long Beach harbor. Tori Richards
“What you are talking about is perfectly described behavior,” Tessier said of the crane operators. “This is all a reflection of the management they have down there, the inmates run the asylum. The managers are all afraid to say anything because the operators are so powerful they get management fired if they don’t like them.”
Most truckers are independent contractors who are paid per container delivery and make a fraction of a crane operator’s salary. They only arrive at the docks after receiving notification that the cargo is ready for pickup. Waiting hours for shipping containers to be loaded onto their trucks is frustrating, and those who have complained were swiftly dealt with, they say.
“They’ll go get the police and kick you out and tell you to leave,” said trucker Chris. “Then, you get banned from coming back in there.”
Or sometimes, the crane operator will mete out punishment by skipping the trucker and working on someone else, exacerbating the wait.
While three-hour waits are common, some truckers have been at the port for days.
“They will wait there all day and then come back the next day,” Chris said. “I know someone who kept coming back, and eventually, [the terminal] will charge you a storage fee if you don’t get the container out of there.”
Truckers unlucky enough to be waiting around lunchtime will watch as the entire crane crew stops work, instead of staggering their hours.
“They leave for two hours, and you are stuck with no one there,” trucker Brian said.
The ILWU did not respond to two requests for comment.
As of Wednesday, 60 ships were at a berth unloading cargo at one of the three Los Angeles ports. Another 78 are anchored off the coast stretching along Orange County and around Catalina Island, according to the Marine Exchange, which coordinates the ship traffic. The wait time to come into port can take weeks, including one ship that has been anchored since Sept. 12.© Provided by Washington ExaminerA cargo terminal in Long Beach harbor. Tori Richards
The backlog, stretching 20 miles along the coast, has forced many large retailers to circumvent the mess and charter their own ships so products can be on shelves before Christmas shopping season. Reuters reported that incoming cargo is up 30%, which is also part of the problem.
A secondary issue leading to the crunch is a lack of available chassis at the ports to place the cargo container onto before it’s hauled away by the trucker. While the truckers say they are making the same number of trips as previous years, for some reason, chassis are in short supply for those who don’t own one, and they wait for returns to come in.
In an effort to clear the logjam, President Joe Biden negotiated a 24-hour port operation. One of Long Beach’s terminals has already been working around the clock. The Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Long Beach account for roughly 40% of all U.S. imports.
But the round-the-clock schedule probably won’t matter much because the crane operators work slower at night, said a trucker identified as Oscar.
“Compared to all the other years, they are definitely [working] slower now. I wait at least three hours every single day,” he said. Oscar makes two trips to the ports a day to pick up shipping containers full of electronics, which are dropped off in the greater Los Angeles area — a 10-hour process.
Oscar said each terminal has two massive cranes to load cargo and he’s never seen both of them operating at once. A survey of the two dozen cranes in Long Beach by the Washington Examiner found at least half of them nonoperational.
However, one terminal in Long Beach has started using automated cranes, and truckers rejoice when they are summoned to pick up cargo there. It is efficient and quick.
“They have to hire extra men to work the cranes and don’t want to do it,” Tessier said. “There are a lot of things [terminal operators] could do but don’t do because it costs extra money. Shows how concerned they are about their customers.”