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As port dispute drags on, labor secretary urges 'immediate agreement'

Shipping companies and dockworkers union are set to continue negotiations Thursday

Contract talks between shipping companies and the dockworkers union are expected to continue Thursday, as the Obama administration seeks to avoid a costly shutdown of 29 West Coast ports

On Wednesday, Labor Secretary Tom Perez met with representatives of both sides and “stressed the importance of reaching an immediate agreement before the dispute causes further economic damage,” a Labor Department official said.

Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti joined Perez in Wednesday's talks.  

The Labor Department official did not specify what role Perez will take in the ongoing negotiations, saying only that “the administration will continue to work with both parties, in addition to business leaders, workers and elected officials as talks continue.”

After nine months of negotiations, the two sides agree on key issues including healthcare, but talks stalled over the last two weeks over rules governing the removal of arbitrators, who settle disputes between the parties when a labor contract is in place.

About 20,000 dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports have been working without a contract since July.

The dispute -- as well as problems moving larger amounts of cargo from bigger ships -- has been hurting businesses for months. Firms that depend on the ports have reported lost sales as their goods languish at sea or on the docks

Fears of a full shutdown and lockout of dockworkers have risen recently, as shipping companies intermittently halted the loading and unloading of ships.

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, stopped unloading work over the Presidents Day weekend. It didn't want to pay overtime to union workers allegedly trying to gain leverage through slowdown tactics, including by withholding skilled labor.

The local union in L.A. and Long Beach has said it’s only limiting crane operators without proper certification for safety reasons after several accidents. The union charges that employers aren't training enough operators and could fill the missing positions with their own employees, instead of workers from the union dispatch hall.

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