Shipping lines and dockworkers reach deal, port shutdown averted

Shipping lines and dockworkers reach deal, port shutdown averted
Container ships wait offshore to get into the Port of Long Beach on Feb. 11. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Shipping companies and the dockworkers union reach deal, staving off a shutdown of 29 West Coast ports
Shipping companies and the dockworkers union have reached a tentative deal on a new labor contract, union officials said Friday night, staving off a shutdown of 29 ports that would have choked off trade through the West Coast.

The new agreement, which still needs approval from union members, should start easing severe congestion that’s been building for months at the nation’s busiest ports, in Los Angeles and Long Beach, along with other major gateways. Details of the new contract were not immediately available.

The deal alleviates fears of a protracted shutdown that had intensified as negotiations stalled on the contract for about 20,000 dockworkers. In recent weeks, the employers — major shipping lines and cargo terminal operators — intermittently halted the loading and unloading of ships while accusing the union of staging work slowdowns.

Trade experts cautioned that, although a new contract will help, it won’t quickly resolve cargo delays, particularly at Los Angeles and Long Beach, which together handle roughly 40% of the nation’s incoming container cargo.

It will take weeks, if not months, just to clear the current backlog, port officials said.

Further, the congestion stems in part from issues unrelated to the labor dispute. Before slowdown accusations surfaced in early November, the L.A and Long Beach ports already were struggling with the worst freight congestion in a decade, in large part because of a truck trailer shortage and the increased use of mammoth container vessels that hold more cargo than the ships of old.

At the Port of Los Angeles, a single ship often carries 14,000 containers. Two years ago, a large ship would have held 8,000 to 10,000 of the steel boxes.

Cargo ships anchor offshore Monday at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where cargo movement has slowed down as port employers and representatives of the dockworkers union try to work out a new contract.
Hopes for a quick resolution were high at the end of January. The sides had agreed on key issues, including healthcare and truck trailer maintenance, but talks snagged on a union request to change rules governing the removal of local arbitrators, who settle disputes on the docks. Under the previous contract, both sides had to agree to appoint and remove arbitrators — rules employers said protected the integrity of the arbitration process for decades.

According to people familiar with the talks, the sticking point centered on the union's desire to remove one man: arbitrator David Miller, who handles disputes in Los Angeles and Long Beach. The president of the union, without naming Miller, said in a letter to members that the dispute was over “retaining arbitrators who have openly engaged in conduct that clearly compromises their impartiality.”

Miller, 64, said he was “bewildered” that union leaders want him fired.

In an interview with The Times, Miller — a former dock clerk who has been an arbitrator since 2002 — said he has a good relationship with workers and employers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

“I’ve never had a problem with the people at the table,” Miller said. “I always think I'm fair.”

In a bid to avert a shutdown, President Obama this week dispatched Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to join the negotiations, which since early January were led by a federal mediator. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti dropped in Wednesday on the talks, held in San Francisco, to urge settlement.

Perez then told the negotiators that if agreement wasn’t reached Friday, he would haul everyone to Washington to resolve their differences, according to a spokeswoman for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who has participated in a nightly call with Perez and mayors of West Coast port cities.

West Coast port labor dispute
Employers said that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union worsened bottlenecks at the already jammed Southern California ports by refusing to dispatch skilled crane operators — a tactic they contended was used to gain leverage during negotiations.

The union, in response, said it only held back operators without the proper training for safety reasons following several accidents. It accused the employers of failing to train enough operators.

Since last month, employers have sharply scaled back operations. In January, they halted the nighttime unloading and loading of ships in L.A. and Long Beach, saying they wanted to focus on clearing the docks, while not adding new cargo to the mix.

Then they stopped unloading ships on overtime days, saying they wouldn’t pay workers extra during alleged work slowdowns. The companies stopped again over the long Presidents Day weekend at the 29 West Coast ports, which caused the line of ships stranded off the coast to grow.

On Monday morning, 33 ships were anchored outside the L.A. and Long Beach ports, waiting for a berth, six more than the Friday before the companies stopped unloading ships, according to the Marine Exchange of Southern California. Unloading resumed Tuesday, and on Friday morning there were 27 ships waiting to dock.

Gene Seroka, executive director for the Port of Los Angeles, has said a new deal is vital to return L.A. and Long Beach to normalcy. It would, he has said, allow employers and the union to work together to find solutions to the myriad supply chain problems.