Despite West Coast ports' labor deal, normality not yet on horizon

Shaming of both sides seems to have helped bring about resolution in West Coast port labor dispute
Labor dispute at West Coast ports 'wrought havoc' on the soybean industry

West Coast ports are emerging from the most contentious labor dispute in more than a decade, but lingering resentment and structural problems may complicate a return to normality.

Activity picked up Saturday at Western harbors after the dockworkers union and employers reached a tentative agreement late Friday on a new five-year contract that will cover 20,000 workers at 29 ports.

The resolution followed months of difficult negotiations that contributed to an extended slowdown at the docks. Cargo was stranded, disrupting operations for Central Valley citrus growers, Midwest auto factories, McDonald's restaurants in Japan and many other businesses.

The ordeal darkened public perception of major trade portals such as the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, which together process 40% of the nation's incoming container cargo. Experts said that members of the Pacific Maritime Assn. — large shipping lines and port terminal operators — and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have a hard fight ahead to win back respect and lost customers.

"I think the parties have an understanding of the impact of this disruption," U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez said in an interview. "They understand that they not only have to restore service, they have to restore confidence."

Perez was dispatched by President Obama to meet with employers and the union last week and urge settlement on a new contract. A few months after the last contract expired in July, activity at the ports began to dramatically slow and each side blamed the other.

Shaming appears to have been among the tactics used to encourage a resolution.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti joined the talks and told negotiators that they were wasting time with internal squabbles as competition loomed from ports in Mexico and the opening of a widened Panama Canal due next year.

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US Congress steps up pressure on ILWU, PMA to reach deal

Feb 02, 2015 3:01PM EST

The U.S. Congress is stepping up its pressure on the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association to reach a “swift resolution” to their 9-month-old contract negotiations.

Eighty-four U.S. House members have signed a letter urging the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association to reach a deal to end the economic pain rippling through supply chains. Although more members of Congress are wading into the the issue, there’s little that lawmakers can do except to urge the two sides to reach agreement.

The most recent letter was organized by Reps. Dave Weichert, R-Wash., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore. It followed a letter by the co-chairs of the bipartisan, 90-member Congressional Ports Caucus urging both sides “to reach a mutually acceptable resolution.”

Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., whose district includes the Los Angeles-Long Beach port area, later criticized employers when they quit hiring night work gangs in response to what the PMA said were ILWU-orchestrated slowdowns.

Last November, the six U.S. senators from California, Washington and Oregon signed a letter urging the two sides to reach agreement.

There’s been some discussion of bringing longshore labor relations under the Railway Labor Act, which covers the railroad and airline industries, but such a change would encounter strong opposition and has not been seriously pursued.

Former Rep. Jack Kingston, a Republican who represented Georgia's first congressional district from 1993 until this year, said West Coast congestion and longshore labor get little attention in comparision with other subjects. "I think right now things are kind of quiet and focused on the world of other issues, like Isis and healthcare and things like that, so it's not a top-tier issue," he told

The letter from the 84 House members to ILWU President Robert McEllrath and PMA President James McKenna indicated that some lawmakers are paying attention. The House members said port delays are being “felt in all parts of the supply chain and across the entire country. Our constituents are losing business, letting employees go, and worrying about the future.”

The letter cited a report last year by the National Retail Federation and National Association of Manufacturers estimating that a 10-day shutdown of West Coast ports would cost the economy more than $21 billion.

Even without a port shutdown, companies are incurring costs and lost sales from delays at the ports. Retailers and manufacturers have had to reroute shipments, and agricultural exporters say they’re being shut out of overseas markets. Meat and poultry producer Tyson Foods said last week that the delays are affecting export supply chains and soon could be felt by livestock producers

Contact Joseph Bonney at and follow him on Twitter: @JosephBonney.

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