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A West Coast shipping rate hike? Really?

Want to hear something funny? Or at least, eyebrow-lifting?

After months-long disruptions getting freight through ports on the West Coast, the shipping lines serving those ports want to raise prices.


Yep. By about $1,000 per box—one of those 40-foot containers you see on trains or trucks.

Unlike many industries in the United States, or even the world, ocean carriers are allowed to sit down in a group and discuss what rates to charge customers without breaking antitrust laws. Half a century ago, that counted for something. But various changes to the laws have eroded that monopolistic pricing power. Sure, shipping lines still meet and discuss rates for various trade lanes, but the discussion is more like wishful thinking rather than any realistic, enforceable pricing action.

Nevertheless, the awkwardly-named Transpacific Stabilization Agreement, the rate-setting group for shipping lines moving cargo from Asia to the West Coast, announced this week that it wants to hike rates over the summer.

These are services to the same ports that were practically frozen over the winter, not by weather, but because of a labor spat between these same ship lines and the dockworkers union. Economists and businesses are still pointing at those port problems for weak results this past quarter.

"The entire transportation and logistics sector is still digging out from a very difficult period, and all parties are eager to return to a more stable, predictable environment in moving goods to market," said TSA executive administrator Brian Conrad, in the price-hike announcement. "We're fortunate that the U.S. consumer remains strong, port throughput is improving, and operational chokepoints have eased. But it must be remembered that baseline service levels come at a cost."

The price increase is not likely to become reality. The ocean shipping industry has been chronically plagued by too many ships looking for cargo, driving shipping prices down. Indeed, most ship lines offer major importers contracts with low shipping rates in exchange for large volume commitments in an effort to keep ships full.

Still, the juxtaposition of port congestion and rate increases is a little eyebrow-lifting, particularly among customers.

"Many question why carriers would seek an increase when there's been such a complete failure for the last six months," said Jonathan Gold, who oversees transportation issues for the National Retail Federation. "They've got to fix some issues relating to reliability and predictability."

Commentary by Allen Wastler, managing editor of CNBC.com. Follow him on Twitter @AWastler.