Hours before his three children wake up, 50-year-old trucker Manuel Vaca climbs into the cab of his big rig and makes his way to the terminals at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The gates don't open until 8 a.m., but he is usually there by 5 to secure his place in the long line of trucks. He listens to the radio. He talks to other drivers. But mostly he just waits.
"We're just killing time, and there's nothing we can do about it," said Vaca, a 12-year veteran of the trucking business.
There is a lot of that going on at the nation's busiest port these days, as a glut of imports from Asia, a shortage of dockworkers and breakdowns in the harbor's infrastructure have created a tangled backlog in the midst of the peak holiday season.
The crowding is not expected to significantly delay Christmas shipments as additional hiring is starting to pick up the slack. But as the national economy continues to outsource manufacturing jobs, the explosive growth in imports is taxing the capacity of the nation's ports and its road and rail system, transportation officials said.
"That's really swinging the whole transportation system around. It's just overwhelmed the infrastructure and it's catching up and surpassing us," said John Bromley, a spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad Co. Hit with a large number of early retirements, Union Pacific recently began limiting the number of rail cars available to haul containers, creating delays beyond those at the ports.
In San Pedro Bay, dozens of ships are anchored, waiting as long as a week to be unloaded, up from the norm of less than three days. Cargo containers pile up in terminal yards waiting to be placed onto trucks or trains, as drivers like Vaca spend much of their day in line before leaving to navigate crowded freeways and more delays.
"We've been seeing double-digit increases in cargo every year. Everyone in the industry saw this coming, but we didn't prepare for it," said Steve Stallone, spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents dockworkers.
With volume increasing more than twice as fast as had been projected and other West Coast ports ill-equipped to handle a large influx of goods, Los Angeles-Long Beach, the largest U.S. container complex, is having to bear the brunt. Many of the ships coming from Asia are too big to make it through the Panama Canal to Eastern seaports. So the ships come in droves to Los Angeles-Long Beach and wait.
Of 82 ships at the port Tuesday, 33 were anchored in the harbor, waiting for a berth so they could unload. The two ports process 24,000 containers a day, handling 70 percent of all shipments to West Coast ports from Asian exporters, and about half of the $750 billion worth of cargo that moves through there from all locations.
Industry analysts had predicted a modest 5 percent increase in cargo coming into the Los Angeles-Long Beach ports this year, but the upsurge has been closer to 14 percent, said Richard B. McKenna, deputy executive director for the Marine Exchange, a nonprofit group that monitors port traffic. Sufficient labor wasn't ordered to handle such a large influx, mainly from China, and ships and cargo started piling up around the middle of June.
"We used to have peaks and valleys," McKenna said. "The problem is that those valleys are now starting to get filled in. It's like Mickey Mouse in Fantasia with all of those buckets. The ships and the cargo just keep coming. It's endless."
Shipping companies began to implement contingency plans as congestion problems became apparent. They diverted smaller ships to other West Coast ports and built additional days for delivery into their supply chain.
"It's a very complicated logistics exercise. But we anticipated backups and we planned accordingly," said Bill Wertz, a spokesman for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the nation's largest retailer. Wal-Mart added several days to its delivery times and began ordering Christmas decorations and toys earlier to avoid any additional delays, Wertz said.
The dockworkers union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and port operators, are sparring over how to clear the backlog at Los Angeles-Long Beach. Both sides are still licking their wounds from the long and bitter feud in 2002 over pay and the role of new technology on the docks. The battle shut down 29 West Coast ports. Accusing dockworkers of a deliberate slowdown, management locked out workers for 10 days, costing the national economy nearly $10 billion and creating a logjam that took months to untangle.
David Arian, president of ILWU Local 13, said the current backlog could be easily cleared if the Pacific Maritime Association would allow an additional 1,000 "casuals" -- who show up on a day-to-day basis to see if extra help is needed -- to have full-time union jobs, guaranteeing them steady work as well as benefits and a higher salary. Union leaders also accuse the PMA of micromanaging the ports, sending inexperienced supervisors to make decisions on the dock instead of allowing veteran longshoremen to help manage the backlog.
"This is all we have. This is our family. This is three, four, five generations of work. When we see those ships back up it's an insult to us," Arian said. "It used to be, 'Here's how much cargo we need you to move. Get it done.' And we did. It's not that way anymore."
PMA officials accuse the union of exaggerating the problem in an effort to boost its membership. They say the union's proposal would do nothing more than change the status of workers already on the job without increasing productivity.
The PMA wants union members to work additional shifts each week. Union leaders refuse, claiming that the use of already-fatigued workers to operate heavy equipment could result in more accidents.
"We have guys who are working four and five shifts a week," said PMA President Jim C. McKenna. "We need them [to] step up and help resolve this problem. I don't think asking someone to work five or six shifts is putting them in harm's way."
To help alleviate the current dockworker shortage, the PMA has certified an additional 3,000 workers for temporary jobs paying $20.26 an hour and has agreed to bring on as many as 2,000 more. PMA officials said the additional 2,000 will have little impact on the backlog because it will be December before they can be added to the ranks, well past the Christmas peak for shipping.
With cargo imports expected to continue to increase and little land available for physical expansion, congestion problems at Los Angeles-Long Beach will get worse unless the entire industry works together to find solutions, said Marianne Venieris, executive director for the Center for International Trade and Transportation at California State University at Long Beach, a nonprofit group that studies the Los Angeles-Long Beach ports.
Moving cargo out of terminals to an inland port by shuttle train has been suggested as one way of reducing traffic. The PMA is pushing for terminal operators to institute new technology to increase productivity. Having the ports operate around the clock, as opposed to the current 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., could significantly increase cargo movement through the harbor area. But a plan to extend gate hours scheduled to be in place by Nov. 1 was delayed until next year by PMA, which cited a lack of available labor.
"There's no silver bullet," Venieris said. "We really need to look at how things are being operated. There are a lot of improvements that can be made, but that is going to take the whole industry working together to get things done."