Obama sends Labor chief into port dispute

Obama sends Labor chief into port dispute
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President Obama is sending Labor Secretary Tom PerezThomas PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE to negotiate a resolution to a labor standoff that has shut down 29 ports along the West Coast.

White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said Saturday that Perez is reaching out to port managers and leaders of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents dock workers, to facilitate a deal to resolve the long-running port standoff.

"The negotiations over the functioning of the West Coast Ports have been taking place for months with the Administration urging the parties to resolve their differences," Schultz said. 

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"Out of concern for the economic consequences of further delay, the President has directed his Secretary of Labor Tom Perez travel to California to meet with the parties to urge them to resolve their dispute quickly at the bargaining table," he continued. "Secretary Perez is already in contact with the parties and will keep the president fully updated."

The White House has been facing pressure to intervene in the dispute, which is threatening the flow of cargo packages to cities as far away as Chicago.

At issue is a labor contract between the port operators and the ILWU 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 decision by the administration to send Perez to California will be widely seen as a response to the calls for greater involvement from Washington.

The Pacific Maritime Association, which handles labor negotiations for port managers, said this week that it is closing ports in Washington, Oregon and California that normally process 340 million tons of cargo from Feb. 12-16 due to allegedly 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 has 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.”

Lawmakers who represent districts near ports on the West Coast applauded the White House's decision to get involved in the labor fight. 

"President Obama has just announced that he is sending Labor Secretary Tom Perez to negotiate a much-needed agreement between ILWU and PMA," Rep. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) said in a statement that was provided to The Hill.

"I spoke to Secretary Perez on Thursday about the negotiations at our port and the need for a quick resolution," Hahn continued. "I am encouraged by this development and I hope that Secretary Perez will work to keep both sides at the table and help them find a resolution that keeps our ports open and our workers on the job."

Business groups in Washington also praised Obama's decision to send Perez in to try to negotiate a settlement to the port labor standoff. 

"We welcome the administration's increased attention to the West Coast ports dispute and are hopeful Secretary Perez will be able to bring the parties together to end this growing crisis as soon as possible," U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said in a statement. "The U.S. Chamber stands ready to help in any way It can."

The National Retail Federation also reacted positively to the announcement that Perez was being sent to California.

"We welcome the administration's attention to this important national and international economic and supply chain issue and hope it recommits the two sides to reaching a deal," said Jonathan Gold, the organization's VP for supply chain. "The slowdowns, congestion and suspensions at the West Coast ports need to end now."

The port labor strife has worried retail groups, who say a prolonged shutdown could be catastrophic for the nation’s economy, for months.

The National Association of Manufacturers and the retail federation said in a study conducted in 2014 that a prolonged shutdown of ports in cities such as 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 have called on the White House for weeks 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,” Donohue said earlier this week.

“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.

This story was last updated at 5:22 p.m.