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A US port slowdown is disrupting Chinese New Year on both sides of the Pacific

Reuters/Bob Riha, Jr.
Release the sheep memorabilia!
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Chinese New Year is the latest holiday to fall prey to a labor dispute between west coast US shipping companies and a major dockworker’s union, as US-bound ships full of sticky rice, mung beans, and ceremonial lai see envelopes for exchanging cash gifts have been stuck at port due to a protracted slowdown.

“Our Chinese New Year is totally ruined,” Taylor Chow, who owns a cooking supply business in California’s Bay Area, told the San Jose Mercury News. The holiday usually generates double or triple his company’s typical monthly sales. US retailers that import Chinese new year goods may be stuck with excess year of the sheep items that arrive late—and the next year of the sheep doesn’t come around until 2027.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, a shortage of US-grown tangerines and oranges, traditional New Year’s gifts, frustrated holiday shoppers, the New York Times reported (paywall). US apple and pear farmers, who rely on Chinese New Year exports for their peak sales months, have also reported aggravating shipping delays.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents ship owners, both say an agreement is near after a nine-month deadlock, but it won’t come in time to salvage the year of the sheep festivities. US labor secretary Thomas Perez visited San Francisco over the weekend to try to mediate the disagreement.

Chinese New Year isn’t the only holiday that has gotten pinched by the labor dispute: A few months ago, Hong Kong experienced a Christmas tree shortage, as US exports languished in the Port of Tacoma, Washington.

Some importers are making alternate arrangements to ship goods from east coast US ports, which are not affected by the work slowdown, but rerouting ships via the Panama Canal adds time and money. Air cargo shipments are another option—one that McDonald’s Japan relied on to relieve its french fry shortage—but as the Times points out, some holiday items like the custom-made New Year lion dance costumes are simply to bulky to ship via air.

January imports are down 21% from a year ago at the port of Seattle, and are down 24% in Long Beach, California. The union and the ship owners have agreed on some contentious issues such as health care, but still can’t see eye to eye on pay and arbitration.

Let’s hope they figure it out quickly or US Independence Day on July 4, when the US imports some $200 million in fireworks from China, may be a distinctly quiet affair.

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