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File photo: A container ship being unloaded is visible during the launch voyage of the Aquarium of the Pacific's new 'Urban Ocean' cruise, May 27, 2010 in San Pedro Bay off the coast of Los Angeles and Long Beach, California.
From specialty foods to clothing, books and toys - much of what we’ll buy this holiday season arrived a few months ago at the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Economists track port activity for signs of economic recovery, and they’re seeing positive signals this year.
The neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are the country’s biggest gateway for trade. So when the economy hit the skids during the recession, it got pretty quiet on the docks, says Chris Lytle, the chief operating officer for the Long Beach Port Authority.
"The downturn that we’ve just seen has been by far the worst that any of us have seen in the industry," says Lytle. "Certainly in my 30 years, it’s by far the worst. We’re pretty optimistic that we had bottomed out in 2009 and now we’re starting to pull out of this."
Lytle’s making his comments while standing on the dock in the shadow of his cause for optimism: an enormous cargo ship.
"We’re looking at the Orient Oversees Container Line, Tokyo. She’s one of the largest ships now that’s on the water that carries containers. She will carry 8,000 containers with all of your consumer products that you can possibly imagine."
The Tokyo was part of the caravan of shipments for holiday shoppers. But even without holiday imports, shipping this year has steadily increased. It's up 25 percent over last year in Long Beach so far and about 17 percent in L.A.
Jonathan Gold, who tracks port activity for the National Retail Federation, says consumers are opening their wallets, slowly.
"Retailers have been very cautious this year as far as what they’ve been ordering," says Gold, "to make sure they’re following consumer confidence and make sure they have in stock what consumers want. So we’ve been very encouraged by the numbers we’ve seen this year."
Gold says this year’s uptick in port business follows a 28-month streak of declines that ended last December. He's expecting a better – but not great – holiday shopping season for retailers.
"We’re looking at a modest holiday season. We predicted 2.3 percent for retail sales, which is over what we had last year. So we see this as continuing signs of growth and we hope it will continue through next year.
Every day before dawn hundreds of men and women who work at the ports line up to get a work assignment at the dispatch hall of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 13 in Wilmington.
Longshore member John Iacono says he was scraping by last year on just a couple days work a week. Now he gets an assignment every day.
"I got my number called and pretty much we can work every day now," says Iacono. "It’s a lot less stressful. I know I’m working every day so I know the money’s there, the mortgage is paid, the bills are paid, food’s on the table. Everything’s better."
The daily job assignments are around 1,000 a day now, says Local 13 Secretary Treasurer Armondo Porras. During the worst of the recession, the job count plummeted. "Back in those days, we had 250 jobs coming to our dispatch hall. All these men were waiting in line, hoping they would be getting them," says Porras.
"Our members are starting to say, 'You know what? I can buy that bike for junior because I'm not afraid anymore.' So things look positive, yes."
"It was brutal," remembers Joe Bogdanovich, who has worked at the port for thre-and-a-half years.
"About summertime, just enough started coming in to get us all out there. There’s still nowhere near the amount of work that there used to be that there was two years ago. We’re still nowhere near that."
When there’s enough work, full-time Longshore members can earn between $50,000 and $100,000 a year. Local 13’s David Serrato, who's worked at the ports for more than 20 years, says union members grew accustomed to a comfortable standard of living.
But when the recession hit, some lost homes to foreclosure and families to divorce. Now, Serrato and his wife – like others – are saving money to tide them over when the port's slow season comes in January.
"We need to be cautious because we’ve got to remember that for two years, we all stopped buying, including my family," says Serrato. "They might have been just restocking and then we’re going to get too excited and then there’s going to be no work again. So we have to be careful there. Hopefully, Christmas will be good this year."
Back on the docks, Chris Lytle with the Long Beach Port Authority is also hoping for a good Christmas. He's optimistic, but also aware of the challenges to a better recovery. There are signs of them at the port.
"If you look at another part of the yard, you’ll see a lot of lumber stacked," says Lytle. "That lumber isn’t really moving very well. And the problem is of course, is home construction. The construction of homes in this part of the country has dramatically slowed down."
Though the lumber isn't moving much, at least the ships are.