West Coast ports shutting down... again

A container ship is docked at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., in this aerial photo taken Feb. 6, 2015.
Bob Riha Jr. | Reuters
A container ship is docked at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Calif., in this aerial photo taken Feb. 6, 2015.

Vessel operations will be suspended at U.S. West Coast ports over the coming long weekend, the Pacific Maritime Association said Wednesday.

"Last week, PMA made a comprehensive contract offer designed to bring these talks to conclusion," PMA spokesman Wade Gates said.

"The ILWU responded with demands they knew we could not meet, and continued slowdowns that will soon bring West Coast ports to gridlock. What they're doing amounts to a strike with pay, and we will reduce the extent to which we pay premium rates for such a strike."

The seaports, which handle some $1 trillion in trade per year, will close on Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. However, yard, gate and rail operations will continue at terminal operators' discretion.

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PMA, which represents about 70 shipping companies, has accused dockworkers of conducting slowdowns, walk-offs and "other actions at key ports, aggravating congested conditions and disrupting cargo movement" in a bid to influence the ongoing contract negotiations.

The union denied the claims and said "cessation of vessel operations was initiated by employers, and is NOT a strike by workers."

"This is an effort by the employers to put economic pressure on our members and to gain leverage in contract talks," ILWU President Robert McEllrath said. "The union is standing by ready to negotiate, as we have been for the past several days."

The shipping firms said it was not logical to pay union workers premium holiday and weekend rates "for severely diminished productivity while the backlog of cargo at West Coast ports grows."

The association has been working with the dockworkers group, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, to negotiate new contracts since May. Nearly 20,000 dockworkers at 29 ports are impacted.

The companies, citing chronic slowdowns in freight traffic they blamed on the union, said it made no sense to pay union workers premium holiday and weekend rates "for severely diminished productivity while the backlog of cargo at West Coast ports grows."

Last week, PMA CEO James McKenna said the organization was not considering a technical "lockout," but warned that the shipping system would inevitably bring itself to a stop if congestion persists.

He said productivity had dropped between 30 and 50 percent in recent months, crippling whole strings of vessels in some cases. It's like "they're getting paid to grind us into the ground," he said.