Business & Economy

West Coast ports: Feds offer assistance in standoff between dockworkers, shipping companies

File image: Port Of Los Angeles
File image: Port Of Los Angeles
Photo by Lance Cunningham via Flickr Creative Commons

Listen to story

Download this story 0MB

Christmastime is here, and there's still no deal between union dockworkers and the shipping companies that employ them at 29 West Coast ports, including Los Angeles and Long Beach. 

On Tuesday, federal mediators offered to assist with negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union(ILWU) and shipping lines, in a bid to ease the standoff  that has threatened to disrupt the flow of cargo at West Coast ports.

On Monday, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents the shipping companies, said after seven months of contract negotiations, it has asked for federal mediation.  The ILWU, which represents some 20,000 dockworkers at the West Coast ports, would not comment on the PMA's request. A spokesman for the union would only say its negotiators have NOT requested federal mediation. 

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said in a statement that it had been monitoring the negotiations closely for a while and "stood ready to provide mediation services at a moment’s notice." The independent agency said it would promptly reach out to both parties, but noted the "voluntary nature of the mediation process."  At this stage, without agreement from the ILWU, federal mediation can't begin. 

"We remain far apart on many issues,” said PMA spokesman Wade Gates in a statement. “At the same time, the union continues its slowdowns, walk-offs and other actions that are having impacts on shippers, truck drivers and other local workers – with no end in sight. It is clear that the parties need outside assistance to bridge the substantial gap between us.”

The PMA statement added that the slowdowns are causing West Coast ports to lose their competitive edge to East and Gulf Coast ports.  It cited a recent survey published in the supply-chain industry watcher, Journal of Commerce that said two thirds of shippers planned to divert at least some cargo away from West Coast ports "to avoid disruption that could emerge from contract negotiations" between the ILWU and PMA.   

"Saying that is one thing, and actually following through over time is another,"  trade economist and supply-chain analyst Jock O'Connell told KPCC.  

He said some shipping companies have diverted some ships away from the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to other ports on the West Coast to avoid recent congestion, but a large rerouting of ships to East and Gulf coast ports would be a much bigger and costlier operation.

“One consideration is, as much as a shipper or an importer like Walmart or Home Depot might want to redirect their shipments to Gulf or East Coast Ports,  whether the shipping lines have the capacity right now to do that,” O'Connell told KPCC. "The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are able to move, under normal circumstances, volumes of cargo that are beyond the capacity of even collections of east and gulf coast ports."  

The shippers' call for federal mediation prompted a coalition led by the National Retail Federation to renew its appeal for White House involvement in the contract talks.  A letter to President Obama signed by 166 organizations, from the American Frozen Food Institute to the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce asked for help. 

"We are extremely concerned the negotiations will now slip into 2015 and continue to cause problems for all industries that rely on the ports," the letter read.  

The dockworkers have been working without a contract since July 1. So far, the White House has chosen not to intervene in negotiations. Last year, a federal mediator got involved in extended contract talks between the United States Maritime Alliance and Longshore workers at East and Gulf Coast ports and helped the two sides reach a deal, avoiding a strike. 

This story has been updated