Senate Dems to ports: Resolve labor issues quickly

Senate Dems to ports: Resolve labor issues quickly

A pair of California senators is calling for a swift resolution to a labor fight threatening the flow of cargo packages at 29 ports along the West Coast.

Sens. Diane Feinstein (D) and Barbara BoxerBarbara Levy BoxerFormer California senator prods Feinstein to consider retirement Trump decries 'defund the police' after Boxer attacked Former Sen. Barbara Boxer attacked in California MORE (D) said in a letter to port managers and leaders of the union that represents dockworkers that they need to negotiate a deal quickly because the labor strife has been contributing to congestion at several of the nation’s busiest ports.

"It is encouraging that, with the assistance of Labor Secretary [Tom] Perez, you have narrowed the differences in this labor dispute that is hurting our economy and restricting the free flow of commerce at our ports," the senators wrote.

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"It is our understanding that the only issue that stands between further damage to our economy and a contract agreeable to both parties is the choice of an arbitrator," they continued. "While it is understandable that the parties can disagree, it is highly disappointing that with so much at stake, you have not been able to come up with a path forward on this one remaining issue."

At issue is a labor contract between the managers at ports that normally process 340 million tons of cargo shipped via truck and rail to cities across the country and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents dockworkers, that was supposed to expire in July. 

Perez was brought in because retail groups pressured the White House to intervene in the standoff after the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which handles labor negotiations for port managers, decided to close ports in Washington, Oregon and California from Feb. 12 to 16 due to the labor disagreement.

Prior to Perez’s arrival in California, negotiators failed to agree to anything more than temporary extensions, and a federal mediator that was brought in resolve the issues was also unable to forge a deal.

Boxer and Feinstein said Thursday it is critical that negotiators find a way to reach an agreement quickly.

"Every day that goes by without a resolution only adds to the economic pain for the West Coast and the entire country. This cannot continue," they wrote.

"The consequences of failing to resolve this dispute immediately would be devastating to our economy and to the millions of people who work hard every day for agricultural producers, manufacturers and other businesses, both large and small, in California and around the world," Boxer and Feinstein continued. "We strongly urge both the PMA and the ILWU to urgently resolve this last issue and to swiftly move toward a final contract agreeable to both parties."

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

The National Retail Federation (NRF) and National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) 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.”

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.”

The Labor Department said Wednesday that Perez was conveying the urgency to resolve the West Coast port standoff since he arrived in California this week.

“On behalf of President Obama, Secretary Perez made clear that the dispute has led to a very negative impact on the U.S. economy, and further delay risks tens of thousands of jobs and will cost American businesses hundreds of millions of dollars,”  a Labor Department official said in a statement that was provided to The Hill.

“While the parties have made tremendous progress, Secretary Perez stressed that it's imperative the parties come to an immediate agreement to prevent further damage to our economy and further pain for American workers and their employers,” the labor official continued. 

Boxer and Feinstein have written to negotiators in the port standoff before, prior to the weekend shutdown.