LOS ANGELES (AP) — Maritime companies locked in a contract dispute with West Coast dockworkers took their case directly to rank-and-file longshoremen on Wednesday, as negotiators struggled to reach a deal and break the cargo gridlock that has stalled billions of dollars of international trade.
In a move sure to upset union leaders, employers distributed letters at major ports from Los Angeles to Washington state that detailed their "last, best and final" contract offer.
Meanwhile, negotiators for the union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents employers, met with U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez in San Francisco.
The involvement of the nation's top labor official underscored rising political and economic pressure to reach a contract deal and free cargo bottlenecks at 29 ports that handle about $1 trillion of trade annually. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker also attended sessions Wednesday.
As negotiators met behind closed doors, with a media blackout in effect, dockworkers read the letter signed by the president of the association that represents companies that own, load and unload massive ships.
At a marine terminal in Tacoma, Washington, foremen handed out letters to dockworkers. In Los Angeles, letters were put in lunch rooms at many of the terminals.
The letter detailed a third, comprehensive contract offer employers made Feb. 12 — more recently than has been publicly disclosed.
Employers appear to hope that union members will conclude the offer — which the letter said includes wage and pension increases and the maintenance of low-cost health benefits — is strong, and dockworkers will then pressure their negotiators to accept it.
One labor expert questioned whether that would work, especially with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which has a history of fighting employers and winning contracts that are the envy of other blue-collar industries. Under the prior contract, which expired in July, average wages exceed $50 an hour, according to the maritime association.
"Handing out the leaflets is a provocative move with questionable gain," said Harley Shaiken, a professor and labor relations expert at the University of California, Berkeley. "We're in the end game, and you don't want to complicate things, and that is the risk."
The letter's "last, best and final offer" language is significant because it could lay the groundwork for the declaration of an impasse and therefore a full lockout of workers by employers.
To date, employers have done partial lockouts, principally of crews that load and unload containers at the docks using massive cranes. They cut night shifts last month and in recent weeks have not called crane crews on weekends and holidays, saying they would not pay extra to workers they believe are intentionally slowing down.
The union denies there is a coordinated slowdown and instead blames problems moving cargo from ships to dockside yards to distribution warehouses on factors including a shortage of trucks and drivers.
Problems on the waterfront have led to historically bad cargo congestion.
Dozens of ships are anchored off the West Coast. Laden with clothing, toys, televisions, auto parts and a big-box-store selection of other goods, the vessels are waiting for dock space that is taking weeks to become free. On Wednesday, the Port of Long Beach said container cargo was down 19 percent in January, compared to 2014.
The two sides already have reached tentative agreements on key issues including health benefits and what jobs the union can retain in the future.
The issue that brought talks to a stalemate is whether to change the system for arbitrating allegations of work slowdowns, discrimination and other conflicts.
Contact Justin Pritchard at http://twitter.com/lalanewsman.