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Federal mediators asked to intervene in port dispute

Container terminal operators are asking for federal mediators to intervene in labor contract negotiations with the longshoremen's union.
Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

Published on December 23, 2014 10:14AM

West Coast container terminal operators are asking federal mediators to intervene in labor contract negotiations with the longshoremen’s union because the parties remain “far apart on many issues.”

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminal operators, has sought to dispel rumors and speculation that it’s close to a deal with the International Longshore and Warehouse Association.

“It is clear the parties need outside assistance to bridge the substantial gap between us,” said PMA spokesman Wade Gates in a statement.

Agricultural exporters say the dispute is disrupting their shipments of farm goods and are not optimistic the conflict will be resolved before 2015.

“The impact has already been disastrous for ag,” said Peter Friedmann, executive director of the Agriculture Transportation Coalition.

Meat exporters, for example, are resorting to using expensive air freight to honor their contracts with customers, he said. “That means you are going to lose money on every single shipment.”

The ILWU is ultimately weakening the future employment prospects of longshoremen by staging work slowdowns, as shipping companies are looking to avoid West Coast ports, Friedmann said.

The union blames congestion at West Coast ports on other factors, like mismanagement of truck chassis and new oversized ships overwhelming container yards.

Container terminal operators and agricultural exporters have acknowledged there are multiple causes for port congestion but say the longshoremen’s union has aggravated the problem since early November.

Capital Press was unable to reach the ILWU for comment about the request for federal mediation, but a spokesman for the union previously said the gulf between the parties isn’t as wide as PMA is suggesting.

“We certainly feel a sense of urgency and want to get it done,” said Craig Merrilees, communications director for the union.

The PMA’s request for federal mediation is an alternative to locking out longshoremen or unilaterally implementing a contract, said Jim Tessier, a labor consultant and former PMA employee who has criticized both parties in the negotiations.

“There’s not a lot of options available at this point in the game,” he said.

Tessier said he found federal mediators to be helpful during ILWU labor contract negotiations when he worked at PMA.

“They have a way of breaking people out of their positions,” he said.

On the other hand, federal mediators were involved in talks between Northwest grain handlers and ILWU and those parties were at an impasse for two years before reaching a deal earlier this year, Tessier said.


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