US West Coast port employers seek mediation in dockworker talks

A longshoreman walks on bags of rice in a cargo ship at the Port of West Sacramento in California
Ken James | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A longshoreman walks on bags of rice in a cargo ship at the Port of West Sacramento in California

Shipping lines and terminal operators at 29 U.S. West Coast ports asked the union representing 20,000 dockworkers on Monday to consent to federal mediation in contract negotiations, saying the parties remained far from a deal after seven months of talks.

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) said urgency surrounding the talks has grown due to severe cargo slowdowns that the companies accused the International Longshore and Warehouse Union of instigating as a bargaining ploy.

The union has denied causing the port tie-ups and has resisted previous calls by the National Retail Federation and others for President Barack Obama to appoint a mediator to help settle the talks, insisting the parties were making slow but steady progress on their own.

But management said the two sides were nowhere close to an agreement after the latest round of bargaining sessions, which began last Thursday and ran through the weekend into Monday following an exchange of proposals.

"After seven months of negotiations, we remain far apart on many issues," PMA spokesman Wade Gates said in a statement. "It is clear that the parties need outside assistance to bridge the substantial gap between us."

The union declined to comment on management's move except to say that it would issue a response on Tuesday. Both sides would have to consent in order for mediators to be brought into the negotiations, PMA spokesman Steve Getzug said.

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The employers have repeatedly blamed the union for protracted shipping backups plaguing several West Coast ports since mid-October, most notably at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's two busiest container cargo hubs.

Cargo that normally takes two to three days to flow through the affected ports, accounting for nearly half of U.S. maritime trade and over 70 percent of imports from Asia, have faced lag times of up to two weeks, according to industry analysts.

Port employers said the slowdowns could permanently undermine their business, citing an industry survey conducted by the Journal of Commerce reporting that 60 percent of shippers have begun rerouting 2015 cargos away from U.S. West Coast ports to avoid problems there.

While playing down the impacts as less dire than management has described, union officials point to other causes of the gridlock cited by officials of the ports themselves.

Chief among them is a chronic shortage of tractor-trailer chassis used for hauling cargo from ports to warehouses, a situation created when shippers sold off their chassis to third-party equipment-leasing companies.

The employers said no further talks were scheduled before the Christmas holiday.

The two sides opened their talks in May and mutually agreed to keep negotiating after their old contract expired June 30. The parties said in August they had reached a tentative deal on healthcare benefits but remained at odds over other issues ranging from wages to work rules.