A federal mediator is getting involved in stalled contract talks between West Coast dockworkers and their employers.
Political and financial pressure has been building as each side blamed the other for the slow movement of billions of dollars of cargo across the docks at 29 seaports that are a vital trade link with Asia.
The U.S. Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service announced its involvement late Monday. While the development does not mean an immediate return to normalcy at the sea ports, a mediator has proven pivotal in past contract disputes.
The ports from San Diego to Seattle handled $892 billion in imports and exports during 2013, according to U.S. trade data. The largest, in Los Angeles and Long Beach, handle everything from Japanese cars to Chinese electronics; ports in the Pacific Northwest send apples and grain abroad. Cargo volume has been heavy in the past year as the economy has improved – and due to a range of problems, that cargo is having a hard time getting where it needs to go efficiently.
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Members of the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union have worked without a contract since July 1. Though negotiators between the union and Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and operators of port terminals, reached a tentative agreement on health care benefits, in recent months the two sides traded more public criticism than contract proposals.
The maritime association accused workers of slowing down deliberately, while the union said bad management meant that among other things truck beds were not available to move containers of goods.
The disruptions have been blamed for slow or missed shipments of exports and imports. For example, this week, McDonald’s said the port troubles were responsible for a shortage of french fries in Venezuela.
Citing big differences in issues including wages and work rules, the maritime association requested federal help last month.
The union had resisted, but late Monday the federal mediation service said it would get involved based upon “a joint request for assistance.”
In its statement, the service said deputy director Scot Beckenbaugh “has been assigned to help the parties bring these important negotiations to a mutually acceptable resolution.”
The National Retail Federation, which has expressed serious concerns about the impact of the slowdown on its members, called the announcement “the first positive news from the West Coast ports in some time.”
Neither the union nor the employers’ association commented on the announcement beyond confirming its authenticity.
The two sides have a contentious history dating to the union’s founding during the Great Depression.
In 2002, employers locked out dockworkers for 10 days and it was only after a federal mediator intervened that the ports reopened and negotiations resumed.