Seaports in major West Coast cities that normally are abuzz with the sound of commerce have fallen unusually quiet.
Companies that operate marine terminals didn't call workers to unload ships Thursday that carry car parts, furniture, clothing, electronics - just about anything made in Asia and destined for U.S. consumers. Containers of U.S. exports won't get loaded either.
The partial lockout is the result of an increasingly damaging labor dispute between dockworkers and their employers.
And the Port of Oakland, which is the 5th largest container port in the United States, cited a "significant cargo buildup" where up to a dozen vessels a day await berths at its marine terminals. Ships are arriving late and off-schedule because of delays at previous stops in Southern California, in part, because of the union dispute, but also because U.S. import volumes have simply increased, according to the Port of Oakland.
But ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said Thursday the allegations of a slowdown are exaggerated. He said productivity has been good at the Port of Oakland and safety concerns at some Southern California ports have led employers to complain the union has been uncooperative.
"It really is a ruse, it's a smokescreen," Merrilees said.
The two sides have been negotiating a new contract, and stalled talks have all but paralyzed 29 ports that handle about one-quarter of U.S. international trade — around $1 trillion worth of cargo annually.
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The 15 ships scheduled to arrive Thursday at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, by far the nation's largest complex, will join a line of about 20 others anchored off the coast, waiting for berths at the docks to clear. There are clusters of ships outside the ports of Oakland, and Seattle and Tacoma in Washington.
The Southern California slots weren't opening Thursday — a holiday for Lincoln's Birthday. The ships occupying them were idle because companies that operate marine terminals did not call dockworkers to operate the towering cranes that hoist containers of cargo on and off ships.
The berths won't clear Saturday, Sunday or Monday either. On each of the days, dockworkers would get bonus pay for the weekend or Presidents Day holiday.
Employers refuse to pay extra to longshoremen who have slowed their work rate as a pressure tactic, said Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, which is bargaining on behalf of terminal operators and shipping companies.
Friday is a normal workday and would see normal operations.
Dockworkers deny slowing down and say cargo is moving slowly for reasons they do not control, including a shortage of truck beds to take containers to retailers' distribution warehouses.
Employers could still hire smaller crews that would focus on moving containers already clogging dockside yards onto trucks or trains in an effort to free space amid historically bad levels of congestion. Full crews would still service military and cruise ships, and any cargo ships bound for Hawaii.
But both are small operations compared with working container ships that are as long as some skyscrapers are tall.
Cargo has been moving slowly for months across the troubled West Coast waterfront. Containers that used to take two or three days to hit the highway have been taking a week or more, causing disruptions.
The maritime association blames the crisis on longshoremen they say have staged work slowdowns since November. In recent days, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union said companies are exaggerating the extent of congestion so they can cut dockworker shifts and pressure negotiators into a contract agreement.
Negotiations resumed Thursday in San Francisco — the first day the two sides have met since Feb. 6. Talks were scheduled for Wednesday but were canceled despite heavy — and increasing — pressure from elected officials and businesses to reach a deal.
Talks have stalled over how to arbitrate future workplace disputes. Some of the biggest issues, including health care, have been resolved with tentative agreements.
In response to employers' decision to limit work crews, announced Wednesday, the union noted that longshoremen also were not hired to load or unload vessels last weekend.
"The union is standing by ready to negotiate, as we have been for the past several days," union President Robert McEllrath said in a written statement. He suggested the maritime association is "trying to sabotage negotiations.''
NBC Bay Area's Lisa Fernandez and Bay City News contributed to this report.