Negotiators in the nine-month standoff at U.S. West Coast ports are ratcheting up discussions as Labor Secretary Tom Perez seeks to move talks to Washington if dockworkers and their employers can’t reach a resolution.
While Perez set a Friday deadline for an agreement, discussions may extend through the weekend, according to a person with knowledge of the talks.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association have been stalemated in talks toward a five-year contract, an impasse that threatens to close seaports responsible for more than 40 percent of U.S. trade. Perez arrived in San Francisco on Feb. 17, dispatched by President Barack Obama after a federal mediator failed to bridge the gap between the two sides.
“I think it’s turning up the heat,” said Libby Schaaf, the mayor of Oakland, California, who also learned about the deadline in a conference call Thursday that Perez held with city leaders. “It is continuing to underscore that this contract is of national importance.”
Schaaf said Perez didn’t offer details on issues under discussion.
If no agreement is reached by Sunday, Perez wants negotiators to convene in Washington on Monday, said the person, who asked not to be identified without authorization to speak publicly.
Union spokesman Craig Merrilees declined to comment on the status of the talks, saying only that negotiators were meeting Friday morning at the Pacific Maritime Association’s headquarters in San Francisco.
Wade Gates, spokesman for the maritime association, said he couldn’t comment. Lauren North, a spokeswoman at the Labor Department, didn’t respond immediately to a request for comment.
Ports in Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma have endured four months of slowdowns that reduced cargo movement by almost half, according to the maritime association, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators.
The parties have been stalemated over the question of whether the union can fire arbitrators in workplace grievances, according to Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who have been in daily contact with Perez.
A strike or lockout would cost the U.S. economy about $2 billion a day, the maritime association has said.
The association suspended the loading and unloading of cargo on six weekend days and holidays in February rather than pay workers overtime. The partial closings worsened backups that had been building for months at the largest ports. By Feb. 16, as many as 33 ships were queued up in the harbor shared by the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, up from as few as four in December.
Negotiations have stretched to the longest since at least the 1990s. In 2002, port employers locked out dockworkers for 10 days, before President George W. Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act to reopen the ports. The union last went on strike in 1971.
The ports are responsible for about 12.5 percent of gross domestic product, the maritime association has said.
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