Trade groups want federal intervention in West Coast port fight

Trade groups want federal intervention in West Coast port fight
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A group of 166 trade associations is calling on President Obama to intervene in a labor fight that is threatening the flow of packages at ports along the West Coast. 

The current contract between the union that represents West Coast port workers, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), was supposed to expire in July, but negotiators have thus far been unable to agree to more than temporary extensions. 

The trade groups said in a letter to Obama on Tuesday that it was time for the federal government to step in to help negotiate a long-term agreement. 

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“The undersigned associations representing United States manufacturers, farmers, wholesalers, retailers, importers, exporters, and transportation and logistics providers are again writing to express our continued concerns with the status of the West Coast port labor negotiations and the impact the ongoing congestion and slowdowns are having on all segments of the economy,” the groups wrote to the president. 

“We are seeking your help in moving the negotiations to mediation similar to what occurred during the contentious East Coast port labor negotiations in 2012,” the letter continued. “The labor contract negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) began on May 15, 2014 and it seems little progress has occurred since the contract expired on July 1, 2014. While there was optimism with the latest exchange of comprehensive proposals last week, the recent statement by PMA that the parties are not close to an agreement and ‘remain far apart on several issues’ is very concerning.” 

The labor strife at West Coast ports has worried retail groups in Washington about the economic impact of a potential shutdown, which they say would be catastrophic to the nation’s economy. 

The National Retail Federation and National Association of Manufacturers said in a study conducted earlier this year that a shutdown of ports in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle would cost the U.S. economy almost $2 billion per day. 

“The last prolonged port shutdown of the West Coast ports was the 10-day lockout in 2002 which some estimate cost the U.S. economy close to $1 billion a day and took months to recover from,” the groups said. 

“The NRF-NAM study estimates that a five-day stoppage would reduce GDP by $1.9 billion a day,” the statement on the study continued. “This would increase exponentially with a 20-day stoppage resulting in a loss of $2.5 billion a day.” 

The groups that wrote to Obama Tuesday said they were already starting to feel the effects of the labor issues at ports along the West Coast. 

“We continue to see significant congestion at the ports which is impacting both imports and exports,” the letter said. “While there are many reasons for the congestion beyond labor slowdowns, industry cannot begin to develop solutions until a new contract is finally resolved. We are extremely concerned the negotiations will now slip into 2015 and continue to cause problems for all industries that rely on the ports.” 

The PMA, which represents port managers in labor negotiations, formally requested federal mediation of its negotiations with the dockworkers’ union on Monday. 

“After seven months of negotiations, we remain far apart on many issues,” PMA spokesman Wade Gates said in a statement. “At the same time, the union continues its slowdowns, walk-offs and other actions that are having impacts on shippers, truck drivers and other local workers – with no end in sight. It is clear that the parties need outside assistance to bridge the substantial gap between us.”

The group that wrote to Obama said the dockworkers’ union has refused to join in the call for a federal intervention. 

“Even after continued negotiations through this past weekend, the PMA has now officially asked for a Federal mediator to be assigned to help the parties achieve a final deal,” the groups wrote. “It is imperative that the ILWU agree to the use of a mediator.” 

The dockworkers’ union has countered that the port managers are falsely blaming it for issues that are not related to the labor discussions. 

“The numerous, non-labor related causes of the congestion problem up and down the West Coast are well documented,” ILWU spokesperson Craig Merrilees said in a statement earlier this month. “During negotiations last week, the Union addressed PMA directly to express concerns about its deceitful media tactics and the corrosive impact of such tactics on collective bargaining. It’s particularly inflammatory for workers to be told that they’re using safety as a gimmick.”

The labor strife at the West Coast ports has also drawn the attention of lawmakers. 

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) wrote a letter to Obama earlier this month calling for potential mediation between the dockworkers and the ports that employ them. 

“It was my hope that the ILWU and the PMA would conclude their negotiations in a timely and fair manner and without disrupting the flow of commerce and harming the nation's economy,” Shuster wrote. “Unfortunately, this has yet to occur. I appreciate your attention to this critical matter.”