Obama to send labor secretary into longshore labor talks

Obama to send labor secretary into longshore labor talks

Two trucks move containers at the Port of Los Angeles, Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. Seaports in major West Coast cities that normally are abuzz with the sound of commerce are falling unusually quiet. Companies that operate marine terminals said they weren’t calling workers to unload ships Thursday that carry car parts, furniture, clothing, electronics and just about anything made in Asia and destined for U.S. consumers. Containers of U.S. exports won’t get loaded either. AP Photo/Nick Ut
By Karen Robes Meeks, LA Daily News
President Barack Obama will send his labor secretary to California to meet with the West Coast dockworkers union and their employers to help settle a nine-month contract dispute that has slowed goods movement at West Coast ports to a crawl, the White House announced Saturday.

White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Obama is asking Secretary Tom Perez to intervene because of concerns about the economic consequences of any further delays at the ports.

Perez’s mission is to meet with the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and press them to quickly settle their differences at the negotiating table.

The news is one welcomed by congressional members and business leaders, who have been calling for the president to get involved in talks.

Rep. Janice Hahn, D-San Pedro, who spoke to Perez on Thursday about the negotiations, said she is encouraged by the news.

“I hope that Secretary Perez will work to keep both sides at the table and help them find a resolution that keeps our ports open and our workers on the job,” she said.

The Pacific Maritime Association and ILWU have been in talks since May over a new contract that would cover 20,000 dockworkers along West Coast ports, including the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s two busiest seaports, which handle about 40 percent of U.S. imports.

Despite procuring tentative agreements over health benefits and the jurisdictional issue of trailers needed to tow containers, contract talks have become contentious in recent months, with both sides accusing each other of slowing the workflow and adding to the congestion already plaguing ports.

The employers group announced last week that it was suspending the loading and unloading of ships for four days because they didn’t want to pay dockworkers upcoming weekend and holiday pay for what they consider “severely diminished productivity.”

Yard, gate and rail operations continue at the discretion of terminal operators, but vessel shifts on Lincoln’s Birthday Thursday, Saturday, today and Monday — Presidents Day — have been canceled.

Meanwhile, ship operation night shifts have remained suspended since Jan. 13. The Pacific Maritime Association said the move was needed to focus on clearing yards because the union was not dispatching enough crane operators to move cargo out of congested yards.

Union officials have called PMA’s accusations false, saying that employers have been ordering fewer workers to move cargo in the past several months. The union added that PMA refuses to hire and properly train employees for the skilled work.

Talks have been so acrimonious that both sides agreed to the intervention of a federal mediator, who has been in touch with both parties over the weekend. Both sides have agreed to honor the federal mediator’s request not to issue any public statements over the several days.

The union said both parties are close to an agreement, but PMA said at least six issues remain on the table, including wages and pensions. Another sticking point is the ability to remove future arbitrators, who decide whether work stoppage is bona fide. PMA said the union wants the right to fire an arbitrator who rules against dockworkers at the end of each contract period, but ILWU said the employers group has mischaracterized its bargaining position.

Meanwhile, congestion worsens at the ports. At least 22 container ships were stranded at sea Friday afternoon, waiting to be unloaded. More ships are expected to crowd the shores because cargo won’t be unloaded until Tuesday.

Customers complaining about weekslong shipment delays have had to reroute their goods to other ports or spend the extra money to ship them by air to ensure delivery.

Political and business leaders have sounded the alarm on how unresolved talks are affecting their constituents and members, from produce rotting on the docks to businesses being forced to layoff or furlough workers.

“The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are critical to our local and national economy, which is why we have been working closely with both sides and the White House to resolve this,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia said in a joint statement. “We are pleased that Secretary of Labor Tom Perez will be directly participating and urge both sides to continue working to reach an agreement to restore the flow of goods through our ports.”

Jonathan Gold, vice president for supply chain for the National Retail Federation, said he hopes the White House’s involvement will recommit the two sides to reaching a deal.

“The slowdowns, congestion and suspensions at the West Coast ports need to end now,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Karen Robes Meeks at 562-714-2088.