By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Brushing aside calls for federal mediation in prolonged contact talks with employers at 29 U.S. West Coast ports, the union for 20,000 dockworkers urged shipping executives on management’s board of directors to take a more active part in negotiations.
The latest statement from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union came as the two sides escalated finger-pointing over chronic cargo backups at ports that handle nearly half of U.S. maritime trade and more than 70 percent of imports from Asia.
The Pacific Maritime Association, representing shipping lines and terminal operators at the ports, accused the union again of instigating slowdowns since October to gain leverage at the bargaining table.
Cargo that normally takes two or three days to clear the ports has faced lag times of up to two weeks, with productivity at some waterfronts cut by at least half, industry analysts say.
The union, which denies causing the bottle-necks, countered once more that the shippers themselves were largely to blame for business decisions that have disrupted port operations.
Chief among these has been shortages of tractor-trailer chassis used for hauling cargo from ports to warehouses, a result of outsourcing by shippers to third-party leasing companies. Another major factor, union and port officials say, has been the advent of super-sized freighters that have overwhelmed the capacity of terminals to unload them.
Among the ports hit hardest have been Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two busiest U.S. container cargo hubs, as well as Oakland and Seattle-Tacoma.
The Pacific Maritime Association on Monday repeated its call for the union to consent to federal mediation to help clinch a deal, saying "significant issues remain unresolved" after seven months of contract talks, including differences over wages, pensions and work rules.
The union remained silent on outside intervention in negotiations but instead urged greater "direct participation" of executives from the PMA's 11-member board of directors.
"Both sides need the right people in the room to get things finalized," union president and negotiating committee chairman Robert McEllrath said. "Indirect negotiations won't get us over the finish line."
The PMA insisted in its statement that its board had been "intimately involved in these negotiations," since before bargaining began in May.
The two sides last met face to face on Dec. 22, capping a round of bargaining that followed an exchange of proposals. There was no word from either party on plans for further talks.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)