Labor Secretary Perez sets Friday deadline in port dispute

Container ships wait offshore to get into the Port of Long Beach on Feb. 11.
(Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Labor Secretary Thomas Perez has set a Friday deadline for shipping companies and the dockworkers union to end a long-running labor dispute that has clogged West Coast ports.

Contract talks between the the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines and cargo terminal operators, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are expected to continue Friday.

The sides negotiated late into the night Thursday in San Francisco, but no agreement was reached.

A spokeswoman for Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who has participated in a nightly call with Perez and mayors of West Coast port cities, confirmed that if a deal isn’t reached Friday, Perez plans to force the parties to Washington next week to finish negotiations.


Perez joined the contract talks Tuesday and has stressed the importance of quickly reaching a deal to avoid further economic harm, his office has said.

As the dispute drags on, businesses across the country have taken a hit and reported lost sales as their goods languish at sea or on the docks.

RELATED: Port dispute is felt all along West Coast

“The nation’s retailers and supply chain stakeholders cannot afford another week of uncertainty at the Pacific ports, where dozens upon dozens of ships and thousands of containers are held out at sea, and where hundreds of millions of dollars in consumer goods, inventory and merchandise sit idle,” said Jonathan Gold, the National Retail Federation’s vice president for supply chain and customs policy.

Talks for a new contract for 20,000 dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports have dragged on for nine months.

And fears that the labor dispute could shut down the ports--including the nation’s busiest in L.A. and Long Beach--have risen in the last two weeks as negotiations hit a snag.

The two sides have agreed on key issues--including healthcare and union jurisdiction--but they recently deadlocked over rules governing the removal of local arbitrators, who settle disputes when a contract is in place. Currently, both sides must agree to appoint and remove arbitrators.

According to sources familiar with the negotiations, the last sticking point centers on the union’s desire to remove one person: arbitrator David Miller, who handles contract grievances at the ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach.


“It’s crazy,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told The Times Thursday, a day after meeting with both parties. “The whole contract could be wrapped up in a matter of hours if this last issue is overcome.”

Miller could not be reached for comment. And representatives for shipping companies and the union declined to comment, citing a media blackout requested by the federal mediator helping the sides reach an agreement.

The dispute--along with problems moving more cargo from larger ships--has snarled operations at major West Coast ports for months.

Shipping companies have recently halted the unloading and loading of ships on holidays and weekends, saying they won’t reward workers, who they allege have tried to gain leverage through a work slowdown.


In L.A. and Long Beach, the association says the union has limited the number of skilled crane operators available to work, worsening already brutal congestion at the complex.

The local union, in response, says it’s only holding back workers without the proper certification for safety reasons and contends employers haven’t trained enough crane operators.

The union has insisted for two weeks that both sides are close to a deal and contends employers have slashed shifts in order to pressure it to a deal.

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