U.S. West Coast shippers invoke specter of port shutdowns

Wed Feb 4, 2015 10:21pm EST
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By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The chief labor negotiator for shippers and terminal operators at 29 U.S. West Coast ports raised the ante in contract talks with the dockworkers' union on Wednesday, warning that ports plagued by chronic cargo slowdowns were days away from complete gridlock.

But union officials downplayed the potential for shutdowns, suggesting management was exaggerating a crisis as a late-hour negotiation ploy, and countered that the two sides were already close to a settlement.

The contract talks, joined in recent weeks by a federal mediator, have coincided with protracted cargo backups hampering freight traffic through waterfronts handling nearly half of U.S. maritime trade and more than 70 percent of imports from Asia.

The companies have repeatedly accused the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 20,000 dockworkers, of deliberately orchestrating work slowdowns at the ports to gain leverage at the bargaining table.

The union has denied this and faulted the carriers themselves for the congestion, citing numerous changes in shipping practices singled out by port authorities as contributing factors.

A settlement was thought to be at hand last week after nearly nine months of talks following a breakthrough agreement on a key point of contention: maintenance and control of freight chassis used to haul cargo from ports to warehouses. In August, the parties announced a deal on healthcare benefits.

But James McKenna, chief executive of the companies' bargaining agent, the Pacific Maritime Association, said on Wednesday the two sides remained at odds on several issues, including wages, pensions and arbitration to settle contract disputes.

At the same time, he said, worsening slowdowns in cargo traffic through the ports, with freighters stacking up at anchor waiting to be unloaded, had pushed the system to "the brink of collapse."   Continued...

The Port of Los Angeles is seen at dawn in San Pedro, California in this August 20, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/Files