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West Coast labor strife resonates in bay area

While the ripple effects from the work stoppage are noticeable to various businesses, there hasn't been a major impact.

By JEFF HARRINGTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 4, 2002


The ongoing dockworker lockout paralyzing 29 West Coast ports is causing some unusual ripples 2,500 miles away in the Tampa Bay area.

Beall's Inc., the Bradenton parent of the Bealls Department Stores chain, brings in goods through East Coast ports but it's already seeing competition for space there from retailers like Wal-Mart that are rerouting shipments from the West Coast.

Rooms To Go, the Seffner retail furniture chain, is finding it takes longer to line up long-distance truckers because the shutdown has dislocated the trucking industry.

In a related vein, electronics manufacturer Jabil Circuit of St. Petersburg receives its raw materials by air, not sea. Yet, it expects up to a 24-hour delay in receiving supplies because other companies that normally use ocean freight are now clogging up air freight companies.

Still, all three companies, like others surveyed in the bay area, haven't suffered any major impact on their pipeline yet. Many said they rely on either East Coast or Gulf Coast shipments already.

Plus, the fact the shutdown had long been telegraphed gave companies time to prepare.

"They were ready for this," Jabil spokeswoman Beth Walters said of her company's logistics experts.

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies and terminal operators, locked out about 10,500 dockworkers at West Coast ports Sunday, claiming workers had engaged in an illegal slowdown after failing to extend their expired contract.

The two sides are at odds over pensions and other benefits, as well as the union's demand to control any new jobs that would come with the introduction of modern cargo-handling technology.

The dockworkers' union representatives and shipping lines began talks Thursday with a federal mediator to try to resolve their stalemate. Both sides described the talks in San Francisco as cordial, and one officer with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union said there was a good chance that progress would allow the ports to reopen this weekend.

In the meantime, the shutdown has crippled traffic at docks in California, Oregon and Washington state that together handled more than $320-billion worth of imports and exports last year.

By Thursday, the effects were becoming tangible.

Trucks of apples, grapes and lettuce were starting to rot in Asia. Port workers were laid off in Washington state, and farmers scrambled to find new markets or alternate routes to get their produce to Asian markets. A Fremont, Calif., auto factory was forced to close because it had run out of Asian-made parts.

California almond growers, who exported $662-million worth of almonds in 2000, said each day of the shutdown threatens their ability to serve Asian markets as they prepare for holidays.

Based on a smattering of interviews Thursday, the lockout's impact on bay area companies is hardly as debilitating.

"The West Coast furniture retailers are basically going to be shut down. (But) we bring in almost everything from the East Coast, thank God," Rooms To Go president Jeffrey Seaman said.

Indeed, for some, a disruption on one side of the country presents an opportunity on the other.

Apparelmaker Tropical Sportswear, for instance, uses facilities in Mexico and the Caribbean for more than 80 percent of the product shipped out of its Tampa distribution center.

"We're more worried about the retail market than the dockers (shutout)," Tropical president Chris Munday said. "If retailers start to struggle to get goods . . . maybe there's an opportunity to get some business in a very poor retail market. Who knows?"

The West Coast is a pivotal U.S. gateway for a supplies pipeline stretching into China, India and Southeast Asia.

Paradyne Networks, a Largo maker of high-speed Internet access equipment, relies on transistors, capacitors, resisters and other parts sourced from Asia. But those parts are funneled through a distributor that ships components to Paradyne every four months.

"If something came to a slam-door stop, it would be at least 16 weeks before we would feel it," said Scott Eudy, Paradyne vice president of marketing.

Eudy speculated that most suppliers have plenty of inventory on hand because of the industry slump and probably wouldn't mind thinning out their storerooms.

"If this had happened two years ago, it would have been severe," he said. "The supply chains were empty and there was so much demand it was ridiculous. My gut feeling is there's a lot more slack in the supply chain right now."

Many area companies say the shutdown is a non-issue so far.

Publix spokesman Lee Brunson said the Lakeland grocery chain isn't experiencing any effect from the labor strife. "All of our shipment or imports are done through the Eastern seaboard," he said. "We have produce in our stores."

Likewise, the Tampa Port Authority does not envision any impact since it does not handle any vessels that do Atlantic routings, such as Miami and Jacksonville.

Yet port executives are keeping an eye on developments, leery that "what happens elsewhere does definitely affect Tampa," Rafter said.

As evidence, she cites Hurricane Lili, which prompted the shutdown of oil refineries in Louisiana this week. As a result, the port is now expecting a delay in petroleum shipments into Tampa.

Bill Simpson, vice president of distribution and transportation for Beall's, said his biggest concern is immediately after the ports reopen. Beall's domestic shipments of goods traveling from the West Coast to East Coast will be vying for containers and trucks with that of the backlogged shipments entering through the ports.

"Once they open it up again, we'll start getting a floodgate," he said.

-- Information from Times wires was used in this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at harrington@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3407.

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