The 29 ports on the U.S. West Coast were effectively closed to cargo ships for the second time in less than a week on Thursday under a partial shutdown imposed by shipping lines and terminal operators in an escalating labor dispute with the dockworkers' union.
The loading and unloading of cargo vessels was halted for 24 hours starting Thursday morning, and the companies said those operations will be suspended — as they were last weekend — this coming Saturday, Sunday and Monday, unless a contract settlement with the union is reached.
Officials for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), representing 20,000 dockworkers who have been without a contract since July, say they are very close to a deal with the companies' bargaining agent, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA).
But the PMA says the talks hit a snag over a new demand by the union for changes in the system of binding arbitration of contract disputes.
Retail and manufacturing groups, which project that a full, extended shutdown of the ports could cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day, have urged the Obama administration to intervene to keep the two sides at the bargaining table until a deal is done.
"You have two parties, the PMA and the ILWU, which essentially have the economy held hostage right now by not having an agreement in place," Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the industry group the National Retail Federation, told Al Jazeera.
The 29 ports affected by the slowdown handle about one-quarter of U.S. international trade. That's around $1 trillion worth of cargo annually.
In the meantime, inbound cargo vessels continued to stack up at anchor, with about two-dozen freighters left idle on Thursday morning waiting for a berth outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's two busiest cargo hubs. At least 28 more vessels were reported to be waiting at anchor or circling outside ports in San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound.
The numbers are likely to grow by the end of the weekend as additional vessels arrive from Asia with no place to park at the docks.
Citing months of chronic slowdowns in freight traffic that the companies blame the union for instigating, the shipping companies and terminal operators said they were unwilling to pay union workers higher holiday and weekend wages while productivity declines and the cargo backlog grows.
Union officials said the shippers were engaged in brinkmanship, using the partial shutdown to exaggerate the magnitude of the crisis and exert economic pressure on union members.
The ILWU has a reputation as a historically activist labor union, which sometimes uses its position in the U.S. supply chain to protest on behalf of international causes. In 2010, for instance, longshore workers declined to unload cargo from a ship owned by the Israeli company Zim Integrated Shipping Services, amid pro-Palestinian divestment protests.
Al Jazeera and wire services