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Port bottlenecks have repercussions for U.S. industries and consumers

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The Biden administration is hoping that its deal with the Port of Los Angeles will help relieve the supply chain troubles across the country, hopefully by Christmas. The Port of LA, together with a neighboring Port of Long Beach, account for about 40% of containers arriving in the U.S. As we heard, the White House secured commitments from FedEx and Walmart to use those extended hours to relieve the logjam in moving their goods. I spoke with Frank Ponce De Leon about that. He's a coast committeeman with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. And he's been working on the docks for over 40 years. He said the port is already at capacity.

FRANK PONCE DE LEON: Well, the problem is the record-breaking cargo that we've been receiving. People look at the ships that are sitting out at anchor. And that's a strong visual of things, some things that may be wrong in the harbor. And when you look at the terminals, the terminals are packed with containers. We can't discharge containers from a vessel or to the vessel because we don't have any room in the yard. And without the capability of making room in the yard, the vessels will continue to sit.

MARTINEZ: So there is literally no space to put more containers in the yard at the Port of Los Angeles, is that what you're telling us?

DE LEON: That would be correct. We are at capacity and over. But we've been working hard every day through the pandemic to keep the grocery stores and hospitals stocked. And our members are - and our workforce continue to move cargo month after month, breaking the records month after month.

MARTINEZ: So Frank, for the containers that are sitting there, what's the problem? Not enough people to move these things onto trucks and get them out all over the country, is that the main issue?

DE LEON: Well, the supply chain is made up of a number of different entities, and we're just one. So - and one of the most visible when things are going wrong. And so we need truck drivers and truck companies to pick up cargo, deliver them to the warehouses. We need warehouses to remain open or receive cargo. We need equipment. And without the capability of having gondolas and the rail, it hampers our ability to move cargo off the dock.

MARTINEZ: Now, we yesterday got the news that the Biden administration says the Port of Los Angeles is going to be operating 24/7 and even on the weekends. How hopeful are you that this backlog can be dealt with with this move?

DE LEON: Well, I think it's important to let people know that our workforce and our contracts allow the employers and the terminal operators to work 24 hours a day. We have that capability, I mean, since the day I got registered and started working on the docks some 40 years ago. So it's not something that's brand-new. So the push by the ports and the push by Biden's administration is actually a push in the direction, trying to get others who are involved in the supply chain moving so that we can hopefully ease up some of this congestion.

MARTINEZ: If the capability has always been there, what was stopping things from heading in that direction?

DE LEON: You have to understand that these terminals are owned by foreign-owned shipping companies. And a lot of times, they dictate or control what we do on the docks. We don't just show up, you know, unannounced and say, we're ready to go to work. What normally happens is that orders are placed within our joint dispatch halls for labor at a specific terminal or terminals. And we fill that labor and go to work. Without the employer and without the terminal operators ordering us, we don't show up. So a lot of this is out of our control. And we've been facing this for a long, long time now.

MARTINEZ: What's your understanding about who is going to pay for all of this extra hours that the members of your union are going to be working? Is it going to be the Biden administration? Is the U.S. government chipping in to pay for all this?

DE LEON: Look; we haven't been briefed on what the agreement or agreements were back in D.C. or how the operations are going to change in the ports and, truly, how our things are going to be funded now. I don't want to guess on what the agreement was.

MARTINEZ: What do you hope, though? I know that the head of your organization was in D.C. meeting with the Biden administration. What do you hope comes out of that meeting?

DE LEON: I hope that our workers continue to remain safe on the docks. You know, ILW workers have been working every day through this pandemic to keep the - America's economy going, to keep the grocery stores stocked and to keep the hospital and medical supplies and equipment they need. And it's important to know that this is not just a problem that's isolated to Southern California and our twin ports in LA - Long Beach. This is a national problem, and not only national, this is a global problem.

MARTINEZ: Frank Ponce De Leon is a coast committeeman with the International Longshore & Warehouse Union in Los Angeles. Frank, thanks a lot.

DE LEON: Thank you very much for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.