Official at center of port dispute 'bewildered' by demand he be fired

Arbitrator at center of West Coast port dispute 'bewildered' by union's animosity

The dock official whose future has been a sticking point in a labor dispute clogging West Coast ports said he is "bewildered" by union leaders' demand that he be fired as part of a contract agreement.

In an interview with the Times, David Miller -- a former dock clerk who since 2002 has ruled on workplace conflicts between shipping companies and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union -- said he has a good relationship with workers and employers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

"I've never had a problem with the people at the table," Miller said.

A former union official who originally became an arbitrator with the backing of the ILWU, Miller has emerged over the last few days as the unlikely source of a negotiating deadlock that threatens to cripple West Coast commerce.

As cargo ships pile up outside 29 ports affected by stalled contract talks between the ILWU and Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping interests, elected leaders have begun to express frustration at the seemingly minor sticking point delaying a deal.

The issue, according to sources familiar with the negotiations, is the union's demand that Miller be fired and that the system of removing arbitrators be changed to make it easier to unseat officials in his position in the future.

Some have suggested Miller has shown a bias in favor of employers. Miller said that upon hearing such complaints this week he performed a review of each of his 458 arbitrations. He said he found that ruled in favor of the union 58% of the time for employers 42% of the time.

"Numbers and facts don't lie," he said. "I always think I'm fair."

He said he suspects that complaints about him come "from the top down" and high-ranking ILWU officials, rather than the rank-and-file Southern California workers he deals with. "I'm obviously someone's personality problem," he said.

Miller said the experience of seeing himself discussed in newspaper articles and proclamations from national politicians has been surreal.

"I've been around 47 years in this industry, and I'm at a loss," he said. "It's very unsettling to me.... It's unsettling to my family."

President Obama has dispatched U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to help the two sides reach a settlement, as businesses throughout the western U.S. worry about the effects of a potential port shutdown. Dozens of container ships piled up along the Southern California coast while the ports of L.A. and Long Beach were closed last weekend because of the dispute.

Perez has given the two sides a deadline Friday to reach an agreement. If not, he says, they will have to fly to Washington to continue talks.

Asked whether he would consider stepping down to bring an end to the disagreement between the union and shipping companies, Miller answered without hesitating: "Never. Never. Never. Never. Never."

He added, "I'm proud of my body of work."

peter.jamison@latimes.com

@petejamison

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