Pressure mounts on shippers, union to settle U.S. West Coast ports dispute

Two U.S. Cabinet secretaries joined congressional leaders, three governors and a big-city mayor in pushing shipping lines and the dockworkers’ union to settle a contract dispute that has led to months of turmoil and cargo backups at 29 West Coast ports.

U.S. Labour Secretary Tom Perez and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker weighed in as emissaries of President Barack Obama, who has come under rising political pressure to intervene in a conflict that has reverberated through the trans-Pacific commercial supply chain and could, by some estimates, cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars.

Worsening cargo congestion that the union and shippers blame on each other has slowed freight traffic since October at the ports, which handle nearly half of all U.S. maritime trade and more than 70 percent of the country’s imports from Asia.

More recently, the shipping companies have sharply curtailed operations at the terminals, suspending the loading and unloading of cargo vessels for night shifts, holidays and weekends at the five busiest ports.

Work has continued around the clock in the dockyards, rail yards and terminal gates for most of the ports. Some smaller ports remained open to nighttime vessel operations as well.

The union and shipping companies each accuse the other side of instigating the disruptions to gain leverage in contract negotiations that have dragged on for nine months, appearing to hit a roadblock in the last two weeks.

The bargaining agent for the shippers and terminal operators, the Pacific Maritime Association, has said talks hit a snag over a union demand for changes in the system of binding arbitration of contract disputes.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, representing 20,000 dockworkers, has insisted that an accord was near in the negotiations, which a federal mediator was assigned to oversee last month.

Perez joined the San Francisco talks for the first time on Tuesday, according to his spokeswoman, Xochitl Hinojosa, urging the parties to “come to an immediate agreement to prevent further damage to our economy.”

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