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Biden to meet with ports, labor on supply chain bottlenecks

Administration also holding roundtable with big-box retailers to address ongoing congestion

Biden wants ports, labor to coordinate on addressing port congestion. (Photo: Port of LA, The White House)

President Joe Biden plans to meet with leadership at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) on Wednesday to discuss supply chain challenges “and actions each partner can take to address these delays,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki confirmed.

“One of the challenges we’re having is the delay of goods getting through to our ports — that’s one of the bottlenecks in the supply chain,” Psaki said at a press conference on Tuesday. “The supply chain bottlenecks range from industry to industry, but addressing those bottlenecks at ports can help address what we see in many industries across the country,” which is leading to earlier-than-usual ordering of goods ahead of the holidays, she said.

“Solving this issue is going to require cooperation between the private sector, including rail and trucking, ports and labor unions.”

In addition to meeting with ports and labor, Psaki said the administration will hold a roundtable Wednesday with private-sector companies, including Walmart (NYSE: WMT), Home Depot (NYSE: HD) and UPS (NYSE: UPS), to discuss “how the largest cargo owners and shipping companies can address congestion in the transportation and logistics supply chain.”

John Porcari, port envoy to Biden’s Supply Chain Disruptions Task Force, plans to meet separately with Port of Los Angeles Director Gene Seroka on Thursday to discuss supply chain developments as well as the port’s latest cargo statistics.

Porcari told a meeting of agricultural exporters last week that after coordinating with the two ports to extend gate hours to nights and weekends, he would work with big-box retailers and their rail- and truck-carrier partners over the next 90 days to expand operating hours as well.

But along the West Coast waterfront, terminal operators and labor are struggling to coordinate a cohesive operating plan to deal with port congestion that continues to mount.

“I don’t think extra [terminal gate] hours are going to help at all,” Ed DeNike, president of terminal operator SSA Containers, told attendees at the Agriculture Transportation Coalition conference last week. “We’ve opened gates at our expense but have had little support from truckers because they have nowhere to dray the cargo to.”

DeNike pointed out that he gets calls around the clock from upset carriers. “But it’s simple: The terminals are full because the containers are not moving off the dock. The terminals don’t have space to receive export containers. [Exporters] need to work with carriers who are going to prioritize your volumes.”

Longshore labor, meanwhile, blames much of the problem on the terminal operators and their parent-company container shipping lines.

Frank Ponce De Leon, a committeeman within ILWU’s Coast Longshore Division, told the conference that ideas brought to terminal operators on how to improve cargo flow at the ports have so far been rejected.

“We proposed dedicated lanes at terminals, so that trucks carrying your products have priority and predictability. We proposed extending gate hours to keep your products moving around the clock. We’ve negotiated 24-hour gates in our contract with the port, and the option is there if the terminal operator chooses to hire them. But guess what? The employers say no. Or they say that someone overseas has to make the decision, and we never hear back.”

Many of the West Coast container terminals are leased and operated by foreign companies based in Denmark, Singapore “and other countries where they see our U.S. ports as a place to extract foreign profit,” Ponce De Leon added. “The way that the carriers are choosing to export empty containers rather than make them available for [exporters] to get your hard-earned products to your overseas markets is totally wrong.”

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John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.