A federal mediator was invited into the contract talks at the beginning of January. In the meantime, the West Coast port employers have cut down on night shifts at the ports.
"Reducing vessel cranes during the night will help us continue to clear out the yards, where with ILWU has been withholding certain skills," said a spokesman at the time.
The union said the move was aimed at exacerbating the congestion problems, thereby putting more pressure on the talks.
"The employer is making nonsensical moves like cutting back on shifts at a critical time, creating gridlock in a cynical attempt to turn public opinion against workers," said ILWU President Bob McEllrath in a statement last week. "This creates an incendiary atmosphere during negotiations and does nothing to get us closer to an agreement."
The PMA said: "Throughout our eight months of negotiations with the union, the PMA has maintained our sense of urgency on two fronts. The first is reaching a contract with the ILWU that ensures America's West Coast ports can be as competitive as possible, given the realities, pressures and constant changes in global shipping. The second is avoiding union slowdowns and other disruptions at the ports as a bargaining tactic, which not only create immediate harm in local economies, but cause long-term – even permanent – reputational damage as customers and shippers make alternative plans. Unfortunately, despite our sense of urgency in resolving the contract talks and getting our ports moving again, the union's slowdowns continue and the resulting operational environment is no longer sustainable."
The ILWU repsonded: "The congestion problem at west coast ports pre-dates any accusations of slowdowns, and stems from industry decisions that are causing delays for customers and making work more difficult and dangerous for dockworkers. It is unfortunate that port employers recently decided to curtail port operations and reduce hours at a time when customers are already suffering from delays."
The average West Coast longshoreman makes an average of $147,000 a year, according to PMA statistics.
Employers staged a lockout in 2002. Those 10 days cost the economy upwards of $1 billion a day by some estimates. The White House had to order the ports reopened. A recent study suggested another lockout would double those costs if it went longer than 20 days.