From ship to shore: What's behind the supply chain breakdown at the Port of Long Beach

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Containers are stacked at the Port of Long Beach in Long Beach in Calif., Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. U.S. manufacturing growth slowed in October amid growing headaches from supply chain bottlenecks. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Containers are stacked at the Port of Long Beach in Long Beach in Calif., Friday, Oct. 1, 2021. U.S. manufacturing growth slowed in October amid growing headaches from supply chain bottlenecks. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Just how long is the wait to get containerships into the Port of Long Beach?

President Biden recently announced one move: a deal to keep the port open 24/7.

“This is a big first step in speeding up the movement of materials and goods through our supply chain," the president said.

But is it the right move?

“From our perspective, we don't need 24-7 truck gates," Matt Schrap, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association, said. "What we need is more thoughtful approach to how those trucks operate when they're open.”

Today, On Point: From ship, to crane, to container, to shore, what's really happening at the Port of Long Beach?


Matt Schrap, CEO of the Harbor Trucking Association, a coalition of intermodal carriers serving America’s West Coast Ports. (@mattschrap)

Mario Cordero, executive director of the Port of Long Beach. (@MarioCorderoLB)

Also Featured

Ramon Ponce de Leon, president of ILWU 13, which represents longshore workers. (@ramonpdl_ILWU13)

Show Highlights: Ramon Ponce de Leon explains the supply chain bottleneck at the Port of Long Beach

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Ramon Ponce de Leon is the president of the International Longshore Workers Union Local 13. He's a third generation longshoreman, and works at the Port of Long Beach, California.

RAMON PONCE de LEON: Vessels call the ports. And when they call the ports, they berth and we unload the containers. And everybody knows what those look like now, because they're all out at bay and anchored. So we unload them and load them back with exports. And primarily the exports that we have been loading that have been empty containers.

CHAKRABARTI: The Port of Long Beach is the largest container port in the United States. In a normal year, more than $200 billion worth of cargo passes through Long Beach. But this is certainly not a normal year.

CHAKRABARTI: You've seen the pictures and heard the stories. Dozens and dozens of massive container ships floating out in the harbor, waiting days to come into port and unload their goods. A supply chain bottleneck that's rippling across the entire economy.

Ramon Ponce de Leon says to understand what's happening right now, it helps to go back to 2019, when a 25% tariff was imposed on steel imports.

PONCE de LEON: The importers and manufacturers wanted their goods in the U.S. before the deadline of Jan. 1, when the tariff would kick in. So we had a lot of cargo in 2019. We're always ahead of whatever the season is. So the spring volume of cargo would be coming in winter of the year before. The season before we get the goods, so they're on the shelves for the consumer. So that being said, there was a projection of what the consumer was going to buy, and then COVID hit. It hit us hard in March.

CHAKRABARTI: Goods that manufacturers expected to sell in spring 2020 ended up sitting in containers because the pandemic had strangled demand. Ponce de Leon says in a world run on a just-in-time global supply chain, that constant efficiency doesn't have a lot of tolerance for big drops or surges in demand. And it's something he's seen before.

PONCE de LEON: If you remember the Elmo doll back in the day when just-in-time was just in its inception.

NEWS SEGMENT [Archival Tape]: This may very well be the last Tickle Me Elmo to be found in the Bay Area. But he's already sold, and when we brought him out into the store, we caused a near riot.

PONCE de LEON: They were en route in a container. But they weren't in a warehouse anywhere, they were waiting for the container. And I can remember asking one of the information persons at the Toys R US, asking them when the dolls come in. They said they didn't know, it's in one of the containers. They didn't know which one it's in yet. So the container had become the warehouse.

CHAKRABARTI: The container had become the warehouse. And that was 25 years ago. Back to the current situation, when consumer demand began rising in late summer 2020, Ponce de Leon says there was a collision between goods that went unsold from the spring, and new goods that were being ordered in summer 2020. Retailers then were leaving containers of stuff they couldn't sell at the Port of Long Beach. So things started backing up. Just this week, the port put in new rules to try and force companies to remove their goods.

PONCE de LEON: You cannot bring an empty in unless you take an import out. So something comes off the ship, if you're an official carrier owner, you have to come back with that empty and be able to pick something else up. So there's room. So there's an exchange. You can't just bring an empty in, because there's no room. That's what they're saying.

CHAKRABARTI: Ponce de Leon also supports the recent announcement of a new partnership between the Port of Long Beach and two freight train lines. The goal is to move cargo more quickly out of the port, and allow the trains to distribute goods throughout the western states.

PONCE de LEON: We need the train, because here's what we can do. We can load a train. 300 containers with two units, in about five hours. And we can put it on that road in five hours. That's less than a shift, within five hours. So our first shift is an eight hour shift, our second shift in an eight hour shift. We can have an earlier time start than the normal time to start, and have it out of there by the afternoon.

CHAKRABARTI: He also says the longshore workers are willing to work more hours. President Biden just announced an agreement for the port to be in Operation 24/7. But Ponce de Leon says that alone will not fix the congestion.

PONCE de LEON: Because of the congestion and lack of people picking up containers, there's no reason to have it at this point. Because as soon as we get some room, and the delivery happens at a more fluid pace, they would probably order us. But right now they're not even ordering us for a third shift.

CHAKRABARTI: For now, he says, the longshore workers will do what they always do.

PONCE de LEON: We have a resilient workforce, a very proud workforce where Americans, just like any other American, I'm a grandfather, have five grandkids. I need to get them toys. We have skin in the game. We're not going to stop working. And we're not going to take our foot off the gas pedal until America is back to its normal, consistent flow of cargo.

This program aired on November 5, 2021.


Headshot of Dorey Scheimer

Dorey Scheimer Senior Editor, On Point
Dorey Scheimer is a senior editor at On Point.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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