For months, contract negotiations between a powerful union and multinational shipping lines progressed amicably in public, even though roughly 20,000 West Coast dockworkers labored without a contract.
Now the public harmony has been shattered, raising fears that a strike or lockout could close ports up and down the coast and cause economic pain.
The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents employers operating port terminals and shipping lines, has accused the International Longshore and Warehouse Union of deliberately slowing operations at four major West Coast ports, including Los Angeles and Long Beach — the nation's busiest complex.
The union, in turn, has expressed mounting irritation with a lack of progress toward a new contract. On Monday, the union decried what it called management's "deceitful media tactics," which the union said are designed to blame it for brutal congestion at West Coast ports.
The public sniping, experts said, signals that both sides have grown frustrated and probably have come to an impasse at the negotiating table.
"The risk of disruption at West Coast ports by Thanksgiving is increasing day by day," international trade economist Jock O'Connell said.
Noting a tentative agreement on healthcare reached in August, O'Connell said unresolved issues probably involve automation and whether certain jobs will be done off the docks or by the union. During negotiations, management can rely on outside business groups to pressure workers, while the union can push back through slowdowns, O'Connell said.
"Apparently that's what they are doing," he said.
Asked to respond to the slowdown accusations, a union spokesman did not directly address the claims.
"Workers are frustrated because employers have delayed action for years on the underlying issues that created the port congestion … including many of their own making, and have also been delaying resolution of the contract talks for many months," spokesman Craig Merrilees said.
A six-year agreement covering nearly 20,000 dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports expired July 1. The sides have been negotiating since May. In 2002, amid talks for a previous contract, employers accused the union of go-slow tactics, then locked out dockworkers for 10 days, shutting down ports along the West Coast.
Some businesses are worried that ports could be shut down again. In response to rising tensions, the National Retail Federation and other business groups sent a letter Thursday to President Obama, urging that a federal mediator help the two sides reach an agreement.
"The sudden change in tone is alarming and suggests that a full shutdown of every West Coast port may be imminent," the groups said in their letter. "The impact this would have on jobs, down-stream consumers, and the business operations of exporters, importers, retailers, transportation providers, manufacturers and other stakeholders would be catastrophic."
A shutdown would carry an economic hit; 12.5% of the nation's gross domestic product is linked to cargo flowing through West Coast ports, according to the Pacific Maritime Assn. But just how severe a closure would be is difficult to judge.
During a shutdown, cargo isn't simply dumped into the ocean, complicating accurate estimates of lost economic productivity. Certain food products may perish, but most cargo would be diverted elsewhere or shipped through the West Coast when ports reopened.
That may require discounts, however, and may lead to losses. Furthermore, some workers — including 20,000 dockworkers — would sit idle and not collect a paycheck.
At the twin ports of L.A. and Long Beach, management said the union has refused to dispatch hundreds of skilled workers who operate cranes to lift cargo containers onto trucks and rail cars.
The action, the maritime association said, could cripple the nation's largest port complex, which is already suffering from the worst congestion in a decade. In recent weeks, ships have been anchored off the Los Angeles coastline for days as they wait for cargo languishing on the docks to clear.
The congestion stems from several factors, including a surge of cargo before the holidays, an increase of massive container ships that are deluging the docks with cargo, and a shortage of trailers that truckers use to haul containers from the ports to sprawling warehouses in the Inland Empire.
"This slowdown comes at a very bad time," Pacific Maritime Assn. spokesman Steve Getzug said. The union "didn't create congestion, but this action makes it much, much worse."
Officials at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach said congestion hasn't increased over the last week. Management said the slowdowns began in Tacoma, Wash., on Oct. 31 and spread to Seattle that weekend, with L.A. and Long Beach joining on Nov. 3.
The public sparring, however, doesn't increase the likelihood of a strike or lockout, said Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor who specializes in labor issues. The fact that both sides have negotiated four months past the contract's expiration shows that workers and management want to come to an agreement without a work stoppage and believe that they can, he said.
West Coast ports face increased competition from facilities nationally and abroad, and neither side wants to give importers and exporters a reason to go elsewhere, Shaiken said.
"If there is a slowdown, it's meant to spur the negotiations, not to torpedo them," he said.
Aside from the contract roadblock, L.A.-area dockworkers may soon face a choice of whether to walk off the job, at least temporarily.
Some port truck drivers told the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners on Friday that they are ready to strike again after they put down picket signs in July after a request from L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti. The drivers say several companies continue to improperly classify them as independent contractors, leaving them with fewer workplace protections and lower pay than if they were company employees.
"It's a wild card," Shaiken said. "Will the longshoremen honor the picket lines if they are set up?"