A federal mediator is stepping in help try to resolve 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 Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is attempting now to push the parties to negotiate a long-term agreement.
“In response to a joint request for assistance from the parties, collective bargaining between ILWU and PMA representatives will continue as soon as possible under the auspices of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS). “We are prepared and ready to render prompt assistance. Deputy Director Scot Beckenbaugh, a senior FMCS mediator with extensive collective bargaining experience in this industry, has been assigned to help the parties bring these important negotiations to a mutually acceptable resolution.”
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 wrote a letter to President Obama last month along with of 164 other trade associations asking for the federal government to intervene in the West Coast port standoff.
“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 after talks broke off in December.
“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 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 last month calling for federal 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.”
Manufacturing groups cheered the federal government's decision to intervene in the labor standoff at West Coast ports Tuesday.
“The intervention of a federal mediator, as long advocated by the NAM, in the West Coast ports negotiations is welcome news," National Association of Manufacturers Director of Transportation and Infrastructure Policy Robyn Boerstling said in a statement that was provided to The Hill.
"Manufacturers depend on the ability of West Coast ports to efficiently move cargo valued at 12.5 percent of U.S. GDP and a prolonged slowdown would continue to inflict long-term damage to the economy," Boerstling continued. "We commend the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), the International Longshore Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) for taking this critical step in order to keep negotiations on track with the goal of reaching a long-awaited agreement between the negotiating parties.”
-This story was updated with new information at 10:24 p.m.