White House Says Ports, Workers Must Handle Labor Dispute

By Angela Greiling Keane, November 18, 2014, Bloomberg News

President Barack Obama is leaving it to ports and their workers to negotiate an agreement in a labor dispute on the West Coast, taking a different approach than predecessor George W. Bush.

 

The White House is monitoring the disagreement, which so far has resulted in a work slowdown by dockworkers at ports from San Diego to the Canadian border, and doesn’t plan to step in to force a resolution.

 

“Just last year, there was a long negotiation at the East and Gulf Coast ports,” Frank Benenati, a White House spokesman, said in an e-mail today. “And just as the two sides in that case were able to resolve their differences through the time-tested process of collective bargaining, we’re confident that management and labor at the West Coast ports can do the same.”

 

The dispute affects about 20,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in 29 ports, including those in Los Angeles and Long Beach, California, the biggest in the U.S. by container volume. The workers’ six-year contract expired July 1.

 

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminal operators and shipping companies, says workers in Seattle and Tacoma, Washington, have slowed container handling by half, people in Oakland, California, have walked out mid-shift and those in Los Angeles and Long Beach have been unavailable to operate cranes that unload containers.

 

Mediation Sought

 

Without a nudge from the White House to use a federal mediator to resolve differences as the East Coast and Gulf ports did last year, the two sides on the West Coast are unlikely to reach an agreement quickly, said Jon Gold, National Retail Federation vice president of supply chain and customs policy.

 

“We’d like the administration to consider the use of federal mediation to help them reach a deal,” Gold said. “We want to avoid at all costs the shutdown of West Coast ports.”

 

The Washington-based retail group, whose members include Ralph Lauren Corp. (RL) and International Business Machines Corp. (IBM), is among business organizations that asked Obama to help broker an agreement as Bush did in 2002, when he invoked the Taft-Hartley Act to open the ports via court order after a 10-day lockout that crippled container shipments to the U.S.

 

Manufacturers are reporting lost sales to Asian customers, Jay Timmons, chief executive officer of the National Association of Manufacturers, wrote in a letter yesterday to Jeffrey Zients, director of the White House National Economic Council.

 

They’re also facing threats to “source products elsewhere due to the West Coast ports’ inability to efficiently process exports, slowed manufacturing production here in the United States and increased logistics costs at a time when rates are capacity are already at a premium,” he wrote.

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