West Coast seaports fully reopen as contract talks resume

AP News
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Posted: Feb 09, 2015 8:01 PM
West Coast seaports fully reopen as contract talks resume

LOS ANGELES (AP) — West Coast seaports fully reopened Monday after two days during which no ships were unloaded amid a labor dispute between dockworkers and their employers.

The two sides are negotiating a new contract, and bargaining-table tensions have spilled over to the waterfront, where cargo is moving far slower than normal through ports that handle about one-quarter of the nation's international trade — nearly $1 trillion annually.

During the weekend, companies hired workers only to move from dockside yards cargo containers that already had been unloaded from massive ocean-going ships. Employers said those yards are congested to the point of paralysis, and they needed to focus on freeing space. They also said they wouldn't pay full crews they contend have been slowing their work as a pressure tactic.

The CEO of the maritime association that represents employers said last week that ports were so close to total gridlock that employers could lock out workers as soon as Monday. The result would be a total shutdown of all ports.

Despite that urgency, contract talks that were scheduled to resume Monday after a weekend hiatus did not take place in San Francisco. A spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminal operators as well as shipping lines, said they would resume Wednesday.

The association did not say how much congestion weekend workers were able to clear and what a timeline for a lockout might now be.

The dockworkers' union condemned the weekend hiring cutbacks — and the warning of a lockout. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union disputes both that there is little room for new containers and that its members have been working slowly. The union blames the West Coast congestion crisis on structural problems with the shipping supply chain.

On Monday, union spokesman Craig Merrilees wrote in an email that its negotiators "are ready to meet immediately and work on a settlement."

The prior contract expired in July. A federal mediator got involved a month ago. While there was immediate progress after that development, both sides have not settled issues including wages and how to arbitrate future work-related disputes.

Meanwhile, pressure to reach a deal has been mounting from elected officials, retailers whose imported products are stuck on the docks, exporters who say they can't access foreign markets, and others affected by the congestion crisis.

In a letter to the head of the union and maritime association, California's U.S. senators bemoaned the economic damage caused by problems at the ports, noting for instance that citrus season is coming up and exporters worry about getting perishables to foreign markets.

"The stakes are far too high," wrote Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both Democrats. "It is imperative that you achieve an agreement immediately."

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Contact Justin Pritchard at http://twitter.com/lalanewsman .