A House of Cards

Because maritime consultants may never be in a position to predict the numbers of incoming containers with any degree of accuracy, systemwide breakdowns will continue to call for emergency stopgap measures all along the supply chain. In the last few months, for example:
• More than 1000 unskilled casuals were forced into the breach in late June and July when an unexpected surge of containers engulfed the LA/Long Beach complex. By mid-August, in spite of the fact that more than 60 ships were berthed, approximately 20 more were anchored and waiting.
• When Local 13 in Southern California rejected a request by the PMA to make an exception over Labor Day and permit longshoremen to work, the resulting backup of vessels exacerbated the crowded conditions in the complex to the extent that an additional 3000 unskilled longshoremen had to be hired. Because so much time is required to train these newcomers, however, little relief even now is being felt.
• An already burdened Union Pacific Railroad was further stressed in mid-August when a fire in a 3100 foot tunnel rerouted trains until the end of the month.
• A BNSF washout in mid-August interrupted all rail traffic to and from Long Beach for a 24-hour period.
• Two other UP and BNSF derailments in the Long Beach and Oakland areas also brought about costly delays.
• The derailment of a 98-car train in Alabama shut down the major UP and CSX rail route servicing New Orleans and the Texas Gulf Coast.

Could any of the instances cited above have been foreseen and provided for by those engaged in forecasting supply chain developments? Not a chance. There are no safety valves available in the present scheme of things. There are ways, however, to prepare and provide for emergencies and even prevent those crises which have plagued the industry from time to time. The 2002 shutdown of the 29 West Coast ports serves as a pretty good example of an avoidable crisis. Is this the sort of event that deserves some thoughtful consideration? What about the “sweat shop” conditions that were described by Mr. Michael Belzer? Just recently, Ron Carver of the Teamsters’ port division addressed this situation again and referred to owner-operated trucks as “rolling sweatshops”. Instead of waiting for the other shoe to drop, and as long as so many people are directly affected by truck transport, isn’t it time to bring some relief to that segment of the delivery system?

Chuck Mack, director of the Teamsters union’s port division, sees it this way: “Conditions are so bad that the turnover rate among these port drivers exceeds 150 percent per year as they cycle in and out of the industry … It’s perplexing why no one is stepping up to the plate. Everyone is afraid to make the first move.”