Labor woes at major West Coast sea ports have slowed the export of a record crop of Washington apples and endangered big Christmas season shipments of the fruit to Central American nations.
Delays have also hit shipments of autos, smartphones, and numerous other products as longshoremen and shippers try to hammer out a new contract involving work at 29 West Coast ports.
The slowdown comes at a critical time of year, as other shipments of holiday goods arrive from Asia and await distribution across the country.
Washington grows the most apples in the nation and this year produced a huge crop of about 155 million, 40-pound boxes — 35 percent more than usual.
"With the record apple crop we are having this year, the need to move Washington apples outside of the United States is even greater," said Rebecca Lyons, international marketing director for the Washington Apple Commission.
The biggest importers of Washington apples are Mexico and Canada, which don't require ocean shipping. But exports are sent by ship to some 60 other countries, including many where the fruit is a traditional part of the Christmas season, Lyons said.
"In some markets, like Central America, 50 percent of our shipments occur before Christmas," Lyons said. "Once you miss that Christmas window, it's very difficult to catch up again."
Apples would have to leave port by the end of November to reach Central American countries, clear customs and get to stores in time for the holiday, she said.
The timetable has been complicated as the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shippers, has accused the International Longshore and Warehouse Union of deliberately slowing work to gain bargaining leverage.
The association complained last week that the union isn't dispatching enough workers at the giant ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to efficiently load import containers onto trucks and trains.
The association has also said union crane operators in Washington state have moved cargo at half-speed.
The union has countered that its members are simply working safely, and it blames a lack of hiring by shippers and a shortage of equipment for the delays. Spokesman Craig Merrilees of the ILWU declined to confirm or deny whether the slowdown is intentional and laid the problems at the feet of management.
The dispute has left Washi ngton apples sitting in warehouses.
Typically, about a third of the apple crop is exported each year. But this year's massive crop means nearly 50 percent will be exported, Lyons said.
U.S. trade data indicates that cargo worth $892 billion crossed docks from San Diego to Seattle in 2013, much of it representing trade with Asia. A lockout in 2002 cost the economy billions of dollars.
Longshoremen have continued working since their contract expired in July.