West Coast port slowdown could cost U.S. economy billions

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Along the West Coast some of the world's busiest seaports are virtually shut down. Shipping companies locked out union dockworkers from Seattle to San Diego today.

The container ships anchored off Long Beach have been waiting for days to unload, caught in a labor dispute that has left the Coast Guard to manage a floating traffic jam.

Under normal conditions, a ship comes unloads and leaves again. "Normally they come into port, they offload their containers and they're finished. They leave. Time is money," said Capt. Jennifer Williams.

A single ship can carry 15,000 containers. The labor dispute has slowed imports and exports to a crawl at 29 West Coast ports.

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Containers are sitting idle all along the West Coast due to a lingering labor dispute. CBS News

"At stake right now is the continuing recovery of the U.S. economy," said Jonathan Gold, with the National Retail Federation, which estimates it could cost $2 billion a day if the slowdown grows into a full lockout or strike."The West Coast ports account for about 12.5% of the GDP for the United States."

Truck drivers spend hours waiting in long lines to deliver shipments that often go nowhere. Bill Aboudi and Gloria Stockmyer run trucking companies where losses are growing.

"In this yard we've had loads of oranges," said Aboudi. "They've sat here for 23 days. You can imagine what oranges turn [to] in 23 days."

Moldy oranges are part of the increasing cost to farmers.

Washington apple growers say they're losing $6 million a week. Meat and poultry processors, $30 million a week. California almond farmers and rice growers are months behind in shipments to Asia.

"It's almost like a slow death that we're dying right now," said Aboudi.

With containers stacked high all along the West Coast, the two sides are back in negotiations today for the first time since last Friday. Negotiations for a new contract have been on and off since last May.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.