Shipping executives and union leaders representing West Coast dockworkers are expected to resume talks Friday in a push to resolve a months-long dispute that has severely slowed freight traffic at seaports handling nearly half of all U.S. maritime trade.
A meeting between the two sides reportedly ended late Thursday with no deal in place. But amid conflicting reports of progress and increased pressure from the White House, negotiations are set to restart Friday.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), representing 20,000 dockworkers at 29 seaports, has been locked in negotiations over a new contract for nine months with the bargaining agent for shippers and terminal operators, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA).
Reuters, citing sources close to the talks, said no agreement had yet been reached and that more work was needed. The report seemingly contradicted the Journal of Commerce, an industry trade magazine, which tweeted earlier on Friday that a tentative deal may have been struck.
The main sticking point in the dispute appears not to be health care — which the parties said they had reached a tentative deal on in August — or wages, but whether to change the arbitration system that dockworkers and companies use to resolve workplace conflicts.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday, the ILWU wants "both sides to have unilateral power to fire arbitrators, who act as judges in disputes between the union and employers." But the paper went on to report that the PMA instead "wants to keep the current system in place, in which both sides must come to an agreement to let an arbitrator go."
The nation's top labor official, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, has ratcheted up pressure on both sides to find a resolution, reportedly saying if they don't reach an agreement by the end of the day on Friday, they would have to leave California and negotiate in Washington.
Should the two sides not succeed in reaching a deal, Perez said he will summon their leaders to the nation's capital next week, according to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who the Associated Press reported had learned about the deadline in an evening call Perez had with mayors of major West Coast port cities.
Shifting the stage to "the shadow of the White House will place immense pressure on these parties to resolve an issue that is being underscored as being of national importance," Schaaf said.
Perez has been presiding over the talks in San Francisco, having joined discussions Tuesday at the behest of President Barack Obama, who has come under growing political pressure to intervene in a dispute that has rippled through the trans-Pacific commercial supply chain and could cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars.
Labor-management tensions arising from the talks have played out in worsening cargo congestion that has slowed freight traffic at the ports since October.
In recent weeks, employers have intermittently shut down most port activity. They first cut night shifts for crane crews that load and unload containers and more recently extended that lockout to weekends and holidays, saying they would not give premium pay to workers they believe are intentionally slowing down.
The union denies a slowdown. It blames problems in moving cargo on factors including a shortage of trucks and drivers. On Thursday, its members closed the Port of Oakland by holding their monthly meeting during the day, rather than at night.
Though the economic impact has been hardest on specific industries — U.S. produce and meat exporters, for example, and smaller importers of consumer goods — large retailers, including Walmart, have warned that congestion at the ports could affect what it can offer to consumers.
"Every day that goes by without a resolution only adds to the economic pain for the West Coast and the entire country. This cannot continue," California's two Democratic U.S. senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, wrote in a message to the leaders of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association of employers. The association represents companies that own, load and unload massive ocean-going ships.
Al Jazeera and wire services