Obama sending labor secretary to mediate ILWU-PMA dispute

Obama sending labor secretary to mediate ILWU-PMA dispute

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Obama is sending U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez to California to meet with International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Pacific Maritime Association negotiators to help them reach a contract as West Coast congestion nears a breaking point.

"The negotiations over the functioning of the West Coast Ports have been taking place for months with the Administration urging the parties to resolve their differences," the White House said in a statement on Saturday. "Out of concern for the economic consequences of further delay, the President has directed his Secretary of Labor Tom Perez travel to California to meet with the parties to urge them to resolve their dispute quickly at the bargaining table."

Perez, who is already in communication with both sides, will keep Obama updated on the status of the talks, according to the White House. Before the announcement made Saturday, the White House had balked at getting directly involved in talks and said it was confident both sides would be able to work out a deal.

But in recent weeks pressure on the Obama administration to get more involved has increased. More than a dozen lawmakers earlier this week via a resolution urged the president to “use all tools at his disposal,” including the Taft-Hartley Act, if there was a shutdown. Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Retail Federation, have also urged the president to intervene.

Taft-Hartley allows the president to respond to an actual or threatened work stoppage of national importance by seeking an injunction requiring an 80-day cooling-off period and a government fact-finding panel. If the dispute remains unresolved after 80 days, the report is made public and workers vote on the employers’ last offer.

Since January, federal mediators have been involved in the ILWU-PMA negotiations, which have lasted nine months, but they can only facilitate an agreement, not force the parties to strike a deal.

After months of accusing the ILWU of engaging in slowdowns, the PMA, which represents waterfront employers, earlier this week curtailed ship loading and unloading on nights, weekends and holidays. Vessel operations were halted coastwide Thursday (Lincoln’s Birthday) and Saturday, and will be halted Sunday and Monday (Washington’s Birthday). The move reduces dockworkers’ ability to earn premium pay.

According to the ILWU, which denies it’s engaging in slowdown tactics, the move is “effort by the employers to put economic pressure on our members and to gain leverage in contract talks.”

The ILWU blames port congestion on marine terminals’ inability to handle larger vessels, chassis dislocation, strong volume and other factors.

Contact Mark Szakonyi at mszakonyi@joc.com and follow him on Twitter: @szakonyi_joc.