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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The U.S. labor secretary kicked off a fourth straight day of intensifying talks with shipping executives and union leaders for dockworkers on Friday, aiming to settle a contract dispute that has led to months of disruptions at 29 West Coast ports.
U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez first joined the talks in San Francisco on Tuesday at the behest of President Barack Obama, who has come under growing political pressure to intervene in a conflict that has rippled through the trans-Pacific commercial supply chain and could cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars.
On Thursday, according to big-city mayors briefed by Perez, the labor secretary suggested the Obama administration intended to invite leaders from both sides to Washington next week to continue the talks if a deal were not clinched on Friday.
Bargaining, said to have bogged down earlier this week over the issue of binding arbitration, resumed on Friday after Perez met in the morning with the principals, then exited the talks, according to one source close to the situation. But the secretary promised to remain in touch, the source said.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has been locked in negotiations for nine months with the bargaining agent for shippers and terminal operators, the Pacific Maritime Association. The union's 20,000 members have been without a contract since July.
Tensions arising from the talks have played out in worsening cargo congestion that has severely slowed freight traffic at ports that handle nearly half of all U.S. maritime trade and more than 70 percent of imports from Asia.
More recently, the shipping companies have sharply curtailed operations at the marine terminals, suspending loading and unloading of cargo vessels for night shifts, holidays and weekends at the five busiest ports.
Work has been allowed to continue around the clock in the dockyards, rail yards and terminal gates for most of the harbors, and some smaller ports remained open to nighttime vessel operations as well.
Still, the disruptions have reverberated throughout the U.S. economy, extending to agriculture, manufacturing, retail and transportation.
Cargo loads that would normally take a few days to clear the ports have been facing lag times of two weeks or more as dozens of inbound freighters stack up along the coast, waiting for berths to open.
A longer-term concern has been that U.S. export business lost to other countries and ports may not return once the West Coast dock worker crisis ends.
Port officials have said it will take many weeks to clear the immediate backlog of cargo containers piled up on the docks once a settlement is reached, and several months for freight traffic to return to a normal rhythm.
Mayors Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles and Libby Schaaf of Oakland, California, said Perez on Thursday raised the prospect of calling the parties to the nation's capital next week to continue the negotiations there if they failed to reach a settlement soon.
"We're hoping we get a breakthrough today. If not, everybody's headed to the White House on Tuesday," Garcetti told reporters on Friday morning.
His city encompasses the nation's busiest container port and lies adjacent to the No. 2 port of Long Beach, which along with Oakland and the Puget Sound ports of Seattle and Tacoma have borne the brunt of disruptions.
Sources close to the talks said the chief remaining sticking point has been a union demand for changes in the system of submitting workplace disputes under the contract to binding arbitration.
The Pacific Maritime Association has said the union wants the right to unilaterally remove any of the four West Coast arbitrators at the end of each contract period, a move the companies fear could leave arbitrators vulnerable to intimidation.
The last time longshore contract talks led to a full shutdown of the West Coast ports was in 2002, when the companies imposed a lockout that was lifted 10 days later through a court order sought by President George W. Bush under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.
Reporting by Ann Saphir; Additional reporting by Sarah McBride in San Francisco; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by James Dalgleish and Lisa Shumaker