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Chamber presses for West Coast port labor resolution

Chamber presses for West Coast port labor resolution
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The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is pushing for a resolution to a labor standoff that is threatening the flow of cargo packages at ports along the West Coast. 

Chamber President Thomas Donohue said Tuesday that port managers and leaders of the union that represents dockworkers that the need to come to an agreement quickly because the labor fight is causing cargo ship congestion at several of the nation’s busiest ports. 

“The Chamber is increasingly hearing from companies and industries whose business operations are being adversely affected by the serious slowdown surrounding the labor contract negotiations at the West Coast ports,” Donohue said in a statement.

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Donohue said the impact of the labor fight on the movement of cargo into the U.S. was great that the Obama administration should consider stepping in to resolve the port labor issues. 

“This is now a growing crisis that is impacting farmers, retailers, and manufacturers throughout the country, as well as trucking and railroad companies who have far less cargo to move,” he said. “The time is long past for the parties to agree on a contract. President Obama should urge the parties to quickly resolve their differences, get back to work, and keep the ports open.”  

The current contract between the union that represents West Coast port workers, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU); and the group that represent port operators, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), was supposed to expire in July. 

Negotiators have thus far been unable to agree to more than temporary extensions, and a federal mediator was brought in to help resolve the outstanding issues earlier this month. 

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 in 2014 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.” 

Lawmakers have also expressed concerns about the potential for a work stoppage at ports along the West Coast. 

“Time is absolutely of the essence because significant economic damage has already been done to those people and businesses that rely on the efficient functioning of our ports,” Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats from California, wrote in a letter to leaders on both sides of the standoff earlier this week. 

“The economic impact of the increased congestion at the ports is simply unacceptable and unsustainable,” Feinstein and Boxer continued. “At the time of this writing, seventeen ships are anchored at bay awaiting the opportunity to come into port at the Port of Oakland. Twenty-two ships are anchored at bay awaiting the chance to dock at the Los Angeles - Long Beach Port Complex. As we understand it, in normal times these ships rarely have to wait to dock. Ships have been diverted from California ports in search of more efficient offloading sites. Long term damage to the competitiveness of California ports may have already occurred. These are terrible circumstances.”

The port operators’ group has blamed the cargo ship congestion along the West Coast on a slowdown they say is being purposely conducted by the dockworkers’ union. 

“The PMA has a sense of urgency to resolve these contract talks and get our ports moving again,” PMA spokesman Steve Getzug said in a statement last month. “Unfortunately, it appears the union’s motivation is to continue slowdowns in an attempt to gain leverage in the bargaining. The ILWU slowdowns and the resulting operational environment are no longer sustainable.”

The dockworkers’ union is offering a starkly different take, blaming port managers for cargo congestion.  

“Longshore workers are ready, willing and able to clear the backlog created by the industry’s poor decisions,” ILWU President Bob McEllrath responded in a statement of his own. “The employer is making nonsensical moves like cutting back on shifts at a critical time, creating gridlock in a cynical attempt to turn public opinion against workers. This creates an incendiary atmosphere during negotiations and does nothing to get us closer to an agreement.”