Slowdown started in May. 2009ish contract ended in July. Health care deal reached before the contract ended, however, the sticking point appears to be the union attempting to maintain relevance.
"But negotiations stalled on issues that included what future jobs would fall under the control of the union, which worries that automation at the ports will erode its membership.
In the end, the disagreement boiled down to the system for resolving allegations of work slowdowns, discrimination and other conflicts at the ports. The union wanted to get rid of the man who arbitrates disputes in Southern California and proposed changes to the arbitration systems that would accomplish that; the maritime association rejected those suggestions – though eventually the two sides found a compromise."
Once upon a time, docks were complicated, busy, dangerous places full of underfed, overworked and quite naturally surly young men carrying barrels and boxes and other random cargo. Literally carrying. Today, docks are enormous structures full of machinery designed to lift containers -- those things that sit in pristine stacks on cargo ships, are lifted off by gigantic cranes and placed behind cabs and then trucked to a railyard where they are then shipped across country to another truck which then drives it to its final destination. Needless to say, the jobs running the cranes and keeping the machinery working are very, very different in number and nature, and it is less and less obvious that union organization makes sense.
The last big slowdown strike on the West Coast was in 2002: "The scenes were reminiscent of a 2002 worker lockout that shuttered West Coast ports for 10 days."
Let's stop and match these dates against the business cycle. Workers have the most power during the peak of a boom and the least shortly after a bust -- and 2002 was shortly after the combined post-2000 doldrums and 9/11. The 2009ish ("Their prior six-year contract expired July 1.") negotiations would have occurred during the worst of the post-crash nightmare. While workers in general have less power after a bust, the effect is often magnified for port workers, as international trade can take a real dive.
By going for a five year contract, I believe the union and Perez preserved the ability to engage in negotiations for the next contract before and, ideally from their perspective, near the very peak of this boom. The shorter contract was probably also acceptable to shippers, because every single year that goes by decreases the relevance of the union.
The final paragraph of this coverage is interesting, as it raises the possibility that shippers might switch from SoCal:
"With the widening of the Panama Canal and with ports on the East Coast and Gulf Coast investing to attract more ships, some retailers have said they will think hard before depending on ports such as Los Angeles and Long Beach for the smooth flow of cargo."
The scale of cargo moving in to Los Angeles and Long Beach is actually kind of difficult to visualize. Compared to everywhere else combined, well, I cannot imagine that the union is gonna take that seriously, because they aren't very far sighted. In addition to port development of the obvious sort (docks, cranes, roads and trucks), less obvious but even more important is the need for an efficient rail network that seamlessly connects to the port. Long Beach especially suffers (suffered? Have they fixed it when I wasn't looking?) from horrifying traffic snarls associated with short truck routes because their rail connectivity is imperfect and local development makes it difficult to improve never mind perfect.
[ETA: NYT coverage of the problems associated with attempts to create more/better located rail yards near the ports. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/12/us/rail-project-for-port-of-los-angeles-sparks-anger-in-long-beach.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0]
I'll have to do a lot of looking around to see what is in the works elsewhere, but we could be looking at a new/old era, in which direct movement (i.e. no truck in the middle) from boat to rail becomes standard. After all, everything else pre WWI is new again. While the infrastructure would be expensive and politically difficult (eminent domain type difficult), one of the strongest arguments in favor of it is air quality -- Long Beach has long standing air quality issues associated with idling trucks moving cargo in and around the port. Other strong arguments include reduced operating costs (especially once fuel prices recover), reduced labor needs and faster throughput.
[ETA: Port of Long Beach has an air quality plan. http://www.polb.com/environment/air/default.asp]
[ETA: NRDC on port impact on air quality in the region. http://www.nrdc.org/air/diesel-exhaust/california-air-quality.asp]
Also, the contract expires not in the next Presidential election, but the one after, which is a helluva thing to contemplate, especially if it pits two Democratic Party identified groups (unions and air quality environmentalists) against each other.
From the NYT article above:
"Other ports along the East and Gulf Coasts are rushing to make significant changes to compete with the widened Panama Canal. Last year, the Obama administration moved to speed up the review process to deepen the harbor for many of the ports, saying that deeper harbors would help to create new jobs and strengthen the economy.
Mr. Baker’s group has estimated that the ports could lose 100,000 jobs once the Panama Canal expansion allows larger ships to bypass California and go directly to the East Coast. Without the canal’s expansion, these larger ships could not fit through the waterway. And while Mr. Foster and Long Beach port officials have said that they do not see an immediate threat in the expansion, Los Angeles officials seem to disagree."
The Southern California region may decide, as a political issue, that they don't really _want_ to maintain the complete dominance they have enjoyed in the age of supercargo ships carrying containers, that didn't fit through the Panama Canal pre-expansion. The Ports and those identified with the Ports won't like that, but there isn't any obvious reason why we should keep running everything through SoCal just because we used to _have_ to. We could reduce overall rail time by shipping the goods to a closer port, now that the Panama Canal has been expanded -- but in addition to deepening harbors, we will also have to do rail yard and rail infrastructure development at those Ports, development which may well incur the exact same hostility as the development does in SoCal. The difference being, SoCal's economy is in better shape than some of those East Coast port cities, which means they are a lot less hungry for more business than they already have.
ETA: So, how deep are these harbors and canals? How much deeper would they have to be to be usable again?
Panama Canal pre-expansion is just about 40 feet; post-expansion, assuming it is ever finished, will be right around 60 feet (18 meters).
Irrelevant for this discussion but displaying an upper bound: 24 meters in Rotterdam Port giving a meter clearance for one of the ships that uses it. That's a whole lot more than 40 feet.
Port of Long Beach sez at http://www.polb.com/about/bigshipready.asp :
"Deep-Water Main Channel — one of the deepest on the continent at 76 feet
Deep-Water Terminals — water depths of 50 feet or more at five of the Port's six container terminals
Berths designed to handle vessels that can exceed 156,000 tons fully loaded
Cranes that can move containers stacked 180 feet high and 24 boxes wide"
From the wikipedia entry for the Port of Los Angeles:
"In 2012, the port and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deepened the port's main navigational channel to 53 feet, which is deep enough to accommodate the draft of the world's biggest container ships, such as the PS-class Emma Mærsk and the future Maersk Triple E class."
USA Today coverage of port depth issues:
"The ports of Norfolk, Va., and Baltimore have completed projects that put them in position to be the first to receive the big ships, some of them 1,110 feet long with the capacity to haul up to 13,000 boxcar-size freight containers, Ellis said."
"The Army Corps of Engineers is expected to finish dredging a 50-foot deep channel to three terminals in New York Harbor by the end of the year and to the main New York terminal by 2014, according to New York/New Jersey Port Authority spokesman Hunter Pendarvis. The authority has committed $1 billion to raise the Bayonne Bridge by 64 feet to allow the bigger ships to pass under, he said."
Other ports mentioned in the article: Miami-Dade, Philadelphia, Corpus Christi, Jacksonville, Canaveral, Freeport (TX), Charleston, Savannah.
The economic tradeoffs are partially discussed in the article, altho they focus on time and charges, not on fuel for water + rail vs and all water route.