The unusual decision to intervene in contract negotiations came as U.S. retailers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and agricultural exporters said they had already lost hundreds of millions of dollars because of mounting port congestion.
LOS ANGELES — Seeking an end to a protracted labor dispute that has led to costly delays in West Coast shipping, President Obama has decided to intervene, his administration said Saturday.
At the president’s request, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez will travel to California to “meet with the parties to urge them to resolve their dispute quickly at the bargaining table,” according to a statement by Eric Schultz, an administration spokesman.
Perez will try to mediate a settlement between an association of the major shipowners of the West Coast and the union of Longshoremen who unload those ships, which collectively bring in half the nation’s imported cargo.
The administration statement said the president was acting “out of concern for the economic consequences of further delay” and added: “Secretary Perez is already in contact with the parties and will keep the president fully updated.”
Most Read Business Stories
- Skyrocketing Seattle-area rents leave tenants with no easy choices
- Pension deadline could speed retirement of experienced Boeing engineers
- Health insurer ordered to stop selling in WA
- 4 helpful iPhone and Android tricks you may not know about
- Defamation suit about election falsehoods puts Fox on its heels
The unusual decision to intervene in contract negotiations came as U.S. retailers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and agricultural exporters said they had already lost hundreds of millions of dollars because of mounting port congestion, with spare parts and consumer products from Asia not arriving on time and exports such as oranges and apples left to rot.
For about nine months, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), whose workers unload cargo with giant cranes, and then move it onto trucks and trains, has been in negotiations with shipowners, represented by the Pacific Maritime Association. The negotiations cover about 20,000 union members at 29 ports, including large ones in Long Beach and Los Angeles, in Southern California; Oakland in Northern California; and in Seattle and Tacoma.
The owners and the workers each accuse the other of causing the growing congestion and delays. Hopes of a settlement had risen last month as the two sides invited in a federal mediator, but in the past two weeks, fears of a lockout or a near-total shutdown have increased.
The owners accuse the union of engaging in severe work slowdowns and, in the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex, of refusing to allow experienced but uncertified crane operators — the linchpins of dock operations — to work. But the union says plenty of qualified workers are ready to meet any demand and accuses the owners of manufacturing a crisis to punish workers financially and to force them to settle.
For several weeks, the owners — blaming unannounced labor slowdowns for congestion in the dockyards — had canceled night shifts for the loading and unloading of vessels. Then they said they were halting unloading altogether last weekend, Thursday and Saturday, Sunday and Monday over this holiday weekend. The owners, dominated by large foreign-owned fleets, said they did not want to pay time-and-a-half weekend and holiday wages for sluggish work — what the maritime association called a “strike with pay.”
On Saturday, the number of container ships waiting at anchor in the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors, which together handle one-third of the nation’s container imports, had grown to 22, from 14 Thursday, according to the Maritime Exchange, which monitors ship traffic. That was the largest backlog since the previous labor contract ended July 1.
In recent weeks, ships that normally operate on a rigid schedule, coordinated with trucks and trains on shore, have often waited from one to two weeks at anchorage before they could start unloading. This in turn has delayed the loading of containers — either empty or with products — for the return trip to Asia.
The owners say that full-time workers already make more than $50 an hour, including premiums and overtime, and that they have offered a significant raise, as well as a health plan with no co-payments.
The union has not commented on the negotiations, but it appears that work rules and procedures, not wages, are the sticking points.
One of the main remaining issues, according to the owners, is a condition by the union for the right to demand a change in arbitrators when labor contracts expire. Currently, both sides must agree to fire arbitrators, who are hired for the long term and adjudicate labor disputes.