After labor accord, West Coast ports digging out from cargo backlog; Oakland still disrupted

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OAKLAND, California — Nearly all West Coast seaports began the work week with crews hustling to load and unload cargo ships that were held up amid a months-long dispute over a new contract for dockworkers.

The exception Monday was the Port of Oakland, where problems persisted three days after negotiators for the dockworkers' union and for employers reached a tentative agreement covering all 29 West Coast ports. Those ports handle roughly one-quarter of U.S. international trade, an amount worth about $1 trillion annually.

In Oakland, nine ships were at berth and ready for cranes to move cargo Monday, but only one was being worked due to what port spokesman Mike Zampa called a "temporary shortage of experienced crane operators." He said port officials expected experienced crane drivers to return for the night shift.

Other Oakland dockworkers were still putting containers that already had been unloaded onto trucks and trains. The port handles about 10 percent of the coast's total seaborne trade.

Operations at the other West Coast ports from Seattle to Southern California appeared to be back to normal. The job of restoring the free flow of goods will take at least two months — and more like three at the Port of Los Angeles, the nation's largest.

Put in a line, the cargo containers sitting on ships off the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Monday morning would stretch 731 miles. Stacked up, they'd rise more than 300 miles — higher than the orbiting altitude of the International Space Station.

There are smaller, though substantial, backups in San Francisco Bay and Washington's Puget Sound.

Negotiators for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association of companies that own, load and unload massive, ocean-going ships reached a tentative deal Friday night. Leaders for both sides pledged to keep labor peace on the West Coast waterfront as their respective members vote on the deal.

The union's 13,000 voting members could make their decision in April, though the timing is not set. The maritime association has not said when it expects its members to vote.

The issues in Oakland marked the second day of disruptions there.

A labor-management dispute related to work breaks escalated to the point that the port shut down Sunday.

An arbitrator ordered a return to work on the night shift after finding that longshoremen took part in illegal work stoppages. Melvin Mackay, a spokesman for the local union branch that covers Oakland, did not return calls requesting comment.

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