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As predicted earlier this week, go-slows at US west coast ports have now spread to southern California, with up to 80% of container handling capacity on the coast now in danger of being affected.

The west coast terminal employers’ body, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), yesterday said that dockworkers’ union the ILWU had begun refusing to dispatch hundreds of operators of yard handling equipment in the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, intensifying the already serious congestion in the region.

“Many of the qualified, skilled members the ILWU is withholding have more than 1,000 hours of experience operating this equipment. As a result, the PMA estimates that the ILWU’s withholding of skilled workers will leave half of the yard crane positions unfilled unless corrective actions are taken,” the PMA said in a statement.

The slowdown comes after six months of negotiations between the ILWU and PMA over a new master employment contract. The previous contract expired at the end of June, and until this week operations had continued as normal – although a combination of heavy pre-Christmas volumes, a lack of container chassis in the terminals and a shortage of drivers had led to congestion in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

With the new slowdowns, PMA spokesman Wade Gates said the congested ports could descend into gridlock.

“Although the existing congestion has had ripple effects throughout the supply chain, it is the ILWU slowdowns that now have the potential to bring the port complex to the brink of gridlock.

“The ILWU’s orchestrated job actions are threatening the west coast’s busiest ports and potentially billions of dollars in commerce. It is essential that the ILWU return to normal operations, as promised, so that we can continue meaningful negotiations in a productive environment free of union‐staged slowdowns that are disrupting terminal operations at our largest ports,” he said.

Union sources confirmed that Local 13, the ILWU chapter that covers Los Angeles and Long Beach, had ordered members that operate yard equipment to leave scores of moves in the yards undone.

Meanwhile, congestion in Tacoma worsened this week, with a truck queue to the terminals said to be several miles long.

In response, a group of shipper and freight forwarder organisations has sent a letter to President Obama requesting his personal intervention to resolve the dispute. It predicted that the costs of the dispute could be as much as $2bn a day, citing recent research by the National Retail Federation

“The sudden change in tone is alarming and suggests that a full shutdown of every west coast port may be imminent. The impact this would have on jobs, downstream consumers and the business operations of exporters, importers, retailers, transportation providers, manufacturers and other stakeholders would be catastrophic,” the letter said.

It added: “We believe immediate action is necessary, and the federal government’s use of all of its available options would be helpful in heading off a shut-down and keeping the parties at the negotiating table.”

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