Alarmed by mounting job and business losses that seem destined to only grow worse, members of Congress on Thursday called for an end to the labor impasse that has brought 29 ports along the West Coast to a virtual shut down.
WASHINGTON — Alarmed by mounting job and business losses that seem destined to only grow worse, members of Congress on Thursday called for an end to the labor impasse that has stalled work at 29 ports along the West Coast.
Sixteen House members, most of them from Washington, Oregon and California, held a news conference at the Capitol to recount the economic devastation rippling from slowed cargo shipments across the Pacific in both directions.
One exasperated lawmaker, Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., suggested the situation may become dire enough to warrant intervention by President Obama. Such action, which would require invoking the Taft-Hartley Act on grounds of national interests, ended a 10-day lockout in 2002 by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the same group of terminal operators involved in the current contract dispute.
Port dispute timeline
Significant developments in the West Coast port labor dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association:
Early 2014: West Coast ports begin to have trouble moving cargo due to factors including a shortage of truck beds that carry containers from dockside yards to distribution warehouses.
Mid-May: Negotiations begin on a new contract that will cover workers at 29 ports.
July 1: The prior, 6-year contract expires. Longshoremen keep working.
Aug. 26: Negotiators reach a deal on health benefits, a tricky issue in the talks.
Early November: Employers allege dockworkers are intentionally slowing their work to gain leverage at the bargaining table.
Early January: Employers begin cutting night work crews. A federal mediator agrees to intervene in contract talks.
Jan. 26: Negotiators reach a deal on another key sticking point. Longshoremen will maintain and repair truck beds used to haul containers off the docks.
Early February: Employers make what they call their best, “all in” contract offer. Companies also begin partial shutdowns on weekends and holidays, cutting work crews that would move containers on and off ships.
The Associated Press
Later Thursday, Reps. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, and two other members introduced a resolution calling for a swift end to the stalemate. It also said that if dockworkers go on strike or are locked out, the White House “must intervene to end the dispute to protect American workers and the national economy.”
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The PMA and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) have been negotiating since May for a contract covering 20,000 lucrative blue-collar jobs. The dispute has been crippling especially because one contract covers dockworkers from Bellingham to San Diego.
The last ILWU strike over the longshore contract was in 1971. The last lockout by the PMA was in 2002.
Reichert said the slowdown by the dockworkers and subsequent decision by terminal operators to suspend work for several days have caused hundreds of layoffs in his district alone. Washington apple growers, hay producers and other shippers, Reichert said, are losing customers and their reputations.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Buetler, R-Camas, whose Southwest Washington district includes three affected ports along the Columbia River, said the standoff “has to stop now.”
Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, said growers and other businesses are in jeopardy of losing overseas markets they worked hard to capture.
Since November, cargo had been moving through West Coast seaports at half the usual pace, leaving billions of dollars worth of commodities and merchandise in storage or on anchored cargo ships. Then Wednesday, the PMA said it would halt loading and unloading of containers and cargo on all but one day for the next five days, to avoid paying holiday and weekend premium pay.
Newhouse said the contract deadlock was crippling the economy not only in his Central Washington district, but the entire nation.
Walden said terminal operators have revised their offer with higher pay and benefits. He said seaport operations are of “special public interest” and said without quick resolution, “We’re going to have to do something.”
Asked if he had any reservations about possible federal involvement in private contract negotiations, Walden noted President George W. Bush did just that in 2002.
Bush’s move — the last time Taft-Hartley was invoked and only the second time since 1978 — was condemned by then-House Democratic Whip Nancy Pelosi as a “drastic step” that took away incentives for shippers to bargain with the union.
The Obama administration so far has shown little inclination to inject itself in the contract talks.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on Thursday urged the parties to reach an agreement and warned the shutdown will have “tremendous impact” all around. Her office said she was in touch with the terminal operators, union leaders and the White House, and spoke with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez last weekend and again Thursday.