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Port officials call for swift resolution to labor issues

The Trucker

Port and shipping industry leaders gathered here Thursday called for a swift resolution to a labor fight that is threatening the flow of cargo packages at ports along the West Coast.

The shipping groups, gathered for a media tour of the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles sponsored by the American Association of Port Authorities (AAPA), said the labor issues were contributing to congestion at several of the nation’s busiest ports.

“We have been urging both [sides] since negotiations commenced back in May to resolve and reach a resolution as quickly and as amicably as possible, and that has continued to be our position,” Port of Long Beach Chief Commercial Operations Officer Noel Hacegaba said.

“We are not a part to the contract, but we recognize how important it is for our industry to have certainty and to have predictably,” he continued.

The current contract between the union that represents West Coast port workers, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the group that represent port operators, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), was supposed to expire in July.

Negotiators have thus far been unable to agree to more than temporary extensions, and a federal mediator was brought in to help resolve the outstanding issues earlier this month.

Hacegaba said the Long Beach port was remaining neutral in the standoff, but he said port leaders had hoped a resolution would have already been reached by now.

“In recent weeks, we joined other ports – the Port of LA included – in urging for a federal mediator to get involved to help both sides to reach a resolution quickly,” Hacegaba said. “A federal mediator is now in place, and we’re very, very hopeful and optimistic that with their help, both sides will come together to reach a resolution quickly, so that together with that and by us addressing the operational issues, we can help overcome these congestion issues.”

The labor strife at West Coast ports has worried retail groups in Washington about the economic impact of a potential shutdown, which they say would 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 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 groups wrote a letter to President Obama last month along with of 164 other trade associations asking for the federal government to intervene in the West Coast port standoff.

“We continue to see significant congestion at the ports which is impacting both imports and exports,” the letter said. “While there are many reasons for the congestion beyond labor slowdowns, industry cannot begin to develop solutions until a new contract is finally resolved. 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 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 spokesperson Steve Getzug said in a statement on Monday. “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.

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“Longshore workers are ready, willing and able to clear the backlog created by the industry’s poor decisions,” ILWU President Bob McEllrath said in a statement. “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.”