White House faces pressure to intervene in ports dispute

White House faces pressure to intervene in ports dispute

A labor standoff at ports along the West Coast is threatening the flow of cargo as docks are being closed to incoming ships.

Twenty-nine ports in states from Washington to California that normally process 340 million tons of cargo packages per year that are later shipped via truck and rail to cities across the country are shutting down for the weekend due to labor unrest.

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Lawmakers are calling for the White House to intervene to prevent the shutdown from continuing past Monday. 

“The drawn out process of port negotiations could cost us our national economy $2 billion, and this isn’t just a California issue anymore,” Rep. Jeff Denham, who is a member of the House Transportation Committee, said in a Facebook post.

“The administration needs to get aggressively involved in working out this dispute,” Denham continued. “This must be solved now, before millions of jobs, billions of dollars, and tons of perishable products are lost.” 

[Update: The White House on Saturday morning announced that President Obama was sending Labor Secretary Tom Perez to California to try to resolve the dispute.]

At issue is a labor contract between the port operators and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents dock workers, that was supposed to expire in July. 

Negotiators have been unable to agree to anything more than temporary extensions, and a federal mediator brought in resolve the issues has also been unable to forge a deal. 

The Pacific Maritime Association, which handles labor negotiations for port managers, said this week that it is closing the West Coast ports from Feb. 12-16 due to unfair contract demands and work slowdowns that it says are being conducted by the dockworkers union. 

“What they’re doing amounts to a strike with pay, and we will reduce the extent to which we pay premium rates for such a strike,” PMA spokesman Wade Gates said in a statement. 

The dockworkers union offered a starkly different take, arguing that managers are needlessly closing the West Coast ports “to divide us.”

“They’re using lies and tactics to turn the public against and town locals against the negotiating committee, and the rank-and-file against each other,” ILWU President Robert McEllrath said in a video that was posted on the union’s website.

“We want to go to work, and they’re blaming us,” he continued. “There’s space on the docks to unload vessels, there’s cargo to be delivered, and we’re here to do it.”

The White House had previously stayed out of the dispute. 

“I do think that our view is this is a conflict that should be resolved at the negotiating table,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz told reporters on Thursday. 

“There’s a federal mediator right now mediating between both sides, and we want this resolved at the negotiating table and we want it resolved quickly.”

The labor strife has worried retail groups, who say a shutdown could 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 prolonged shutdown of ports in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle would cost the U.S. economy almost $2 billion per day. 

With that figure in mind, business groups and congressional leaders had called on the White House to step up its involvement and push harder for a settlement to get the 29 ports back up and running at full speed. 

“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,” U.S. Chamber President and CEO Tom Donohue said recently. 

“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.” 

A bipartisan group of West Coast House lawmakers on Thursday — Reps. Dave ReichertDavid (Dave) George ReichertWashington Rep. Kim Schrier wins primary Mail ballot surge places Postal Service under spotlight Bottom Line MORE (R-Wash.), Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), Dan Newhouse (R-Wash.), and Jim Costa (D-Calif.),  introduced a resolution urging a swift conclusion to the contract dispute between the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

The measure also called for the Obama administration to intervene if there is a strike or lockout. 

“This is one of the gravest threats to our nation right now,” the lawmakers said in a statement. 

U.S. agriculture exports are down by over $440 million a week, the lawmakers said. 

“The standstill in the negotiations has gone on for far too long and cannot continue.”
 
NRF Vice President for Supply Chain Jonathan Gold said his industry was also tired of the uncertainty at ports along the West Coast. 

“It’s time for the White House to immediately engage in this critically important economic priority and force the two sides to remain at the negotiating table until a deal is done,” Gold said.

“The time for monitoring has passed. The time for action has come.”

This story was updated at 12:22 p.m.