Parties in West Coast Port Dispute Meet With U.S. Labor Secretary from WSJ

Parties in West Coast Port Dispute Meet With U.S. Labor Secretary from WSJ
Oakland’s cargo volume plunges in January as dispute drags on, congesting harbors
The Port of Los Angeles ramped up operations Tuesday after cargo suspensions four of the past five days. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
Updated Feb. 17, 2015 8:42 p.m. ET

Both sides in the labor dispute at the West Coast ports met with the U.S. secretary of labor on Tuesday, as fresh data showed just how sharply business fell at one of the main ports in January.

The Port of Oakland said that January imports fell 39% to 44,171 containers, compared with the same month last year. Exports fell 26% to 57,581.

Management at the port blamed slowdowns on the long-running contract dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents port employers. The two parties have been negotiating for nine months.

“With a decline in productivity and a breakdown in vessel schedules at all U.S. West Coast ports, cargo volumes are far from normal,” said John Driscoll, the Port of Oakland’s maritime director. The union has previously denied slowing down operations at the ports, although in some cases it has stopped sending workers due to safety and training concerns.

Negotiations in recent weeks have broken down between the PMA and the ILWU, after the two sides had made promising gains.


Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez traveled to San Francisco to “urge the parties to resolve their dispute quickly at the bargaining table,” his press secretary said. People familiar with the negotiations added that he and the mediator met with the parties separately and then, for a brief period in the afternoon, together. It wasn’t immediately clear if any progress was made, but Mr. Perez stressed the urgency to reach a deal.

A White House official said President Barack Obama sent Mr. Perez to California “out of concern for the economic consequences of further delay.” The official said there is a tradition of presidents sending their labor secretaries to help resolve labor disputes.

Mr. Perez is a “very capable leader,” and President Obama “is confident he can help encourage these two parties to resolve their dispute,” the official said.

Pay, pensions and contract length still need to be settled, but people familiar with the negotiations don’t expect those areas to hang up the talks. At issue right now is arbitration.

The ILWU would like to be able to fire arbitrators, who act like judges in issues between the union and employer, at the end of each contract. The PMA wants to keep a system in place, in which both parties must agree before letting an arbitrator go, effectively guaranteeing lifetime placements.

On Tuesday, all West Coast ports once again ramped up operations after having suspended vessel loading and unloading for four of the past five days. Outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, 32 ships were at anchor on Tuesday morning—one fewer than Monday—awaiting a chance to dock.

Although yard and rail operations were allowed by employers to continue through the holiday weekend to help clear containers that arrived last week, “it’s still severely congested,” a Port of Los Angeles spokesman said.

Meanwhile, the Port of Oakland said last month’s cargo volumes reflected the fact that importers were rerouting cargos to ports in Mexico, Canada and the U.S. East Coast.

Separately, several ocean carrier lines, including Yang Ming Marine Transport Corp. , said this week they have in some cases skipped stopping in Oakland to unload because of the severe congestion and offloaded those containers in Southern California, after waiting for several days to dock there.

The port slowdowns are affecting many businesses. Taylor Chow, who represents the Oriental Food Association in the San Francisco Bay Area, said the Chinese community there is heavily dependent upon food imported to the West Coast. He currently has about ten, 20-foot containers off the coast with loads of soy sauce, something he’d intended to sell before and during the Chinese New Year celebrations, which he compared to Black Friday for mainstream retailers.

“We cannot maintain the regular supply for restaurants and supermarkets,” Mr. Chow said. “We are so frustrated.”

Write to Laura Stevens at and Melanie Trottman at