U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez’s meetings with West Coast longshore union and employer negotiators have generated hope, skepticism — and questions.
The biggest questions: What did the White House authorize Perez to tell the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association? And how was his message received by the negotiating parties, particularly the ILWU?
President Obama’s dispatching of Perez to the West Coast drew positive reaction from business groups whose members are being hammered by port delays that are reaching further and deeper into supply chains.The National Retail Federation, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups had been clamoring for months for White House engagement.
But even advocates of White House engagement acknowledge its limitations. Perez can’t force a settlement — that’s up to the ILWU and PMA, with help from neutral federal mediators. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service joined the talks in early January, at the negotiators’ invitation.
Jock O’Connell, a California-based trade economist who has followed the dispute closely, is skeptical about what Perez can do. O’Connell questioned what the labor secretary could contribute that the mediators aren’t already doing to try to bring the sides together.
“Both sides are represented by tough-nosed guys who aren’t going to be intimidated by Tom Perez unless he’s bringing some kind of message from the White House,” O’Connell said. He said the White House may have dispatched Perez to blunt political criticism that’s escalated since the 9-month-old dispute attracted national media attention.
Management-labor consultant Stephen Cabot, who represents employers, agreed. “To be successful, he’s going to have to get the attention of everybody, and I don’t see any circumstance where they’re going to listen to this guy,” he said. “I hope I’m wrong.”
Cabot said the only way Perez could succeed would be if he were authorized to deliver a tough message that the administration is prepared to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act to force an 80-day cooling-off period, and that the administration’s support from labor makes that impossible.
Others say Perez’s involvement is unlikely to hurt and could help, and that it’s unlikely a president would put his administration’s reputation on the line by wading into a private labor negotiation if there wasn’t a good chance of success.
“I don’t think President Obama would have stuck his neck out on this if he didn’t believe they could get something done,” said Michael Belzer, economics professor at Wayne State University.
Belzer and two labor-management attorneys who spoke separately with JOC.com said Cabinet-level involvement in labor disputes is rare, and that presidents understandably prefer to let negotiating parties work out their diffferences without government interference.
Belzer said the FMCS mediators are skilled at helping negotiating parties settle issues related to miscommunication or misunderstanding.
A labor secretary who’s skilled and trusted by both sides can broaden the discussion in a way that offers possibilities beyond what may be on the table, Belzer said. He cited the late John T. Dunlop, who served every president from Harry Truman to Bill Clinton, and was labor secretary under President Gerald Ford, as the epitome of a leader who could deliver a tough message and push the sides to make a deal.
Cabot said Perez lacks that stature. “I see Obama sending in a fairly weak secretary of labor so he can be seen as doing something, quote-unquote,” Cabot said. “The longshoremen aren’t going to listen to a secretary of labor, particularly this secretary of labor.”
Perez, who took office in 2013, has has a relatively low profile. He’s an attorney and former secretary of labor, licensing and regulation in Maryland, and served as a county commissioner in suburban Washington.
His involvement in the ILWU-PMA talks could provide negotiators with cover for an agreement, especially if Perez is well-briefed and supported by knowledgeable staff, and dovetails his message with the mediators’ work, Belzer said.
That could take a number of forms, including tying conflicting demands that have contributed to the standoff to other issues that aren’t part of the contract but are “the elephant in the room,” Belzer said.
“If the problems are more deep-seated than what’s been discussed, that could provide the path to a solution,” he said. “Both sides have to have something that is face-saving.”