Tensions in long-running contract talks at West Coast ports are worsening, with employers accusing unionized dockworkers of slowing cargo handling at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s busiest gateway for imported consumer goods.
The sharp rhetoric marks a shift from a longstanding agreement to maintain public silence on issues around the negotiations, which began last spring. The two sides appear to be no closer to bridging the gap on their disagreements, pointing to the possibility of deeper disruptions to U.S. trade flows.
The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents ocean carriers and port employers, said Monday that dockworkers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach had stopped staggering work shifts during mealtimes starting last Wednesday. The PMA said that has forced terminals to shut down every day for an hour in the afternoon and another hour at night, interruptions that have triggered “significant delays” in cargo operations and long backups of trucks at terminal gates.
Willie Adams, the president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union representing dockworkers, said his members are allowed “to take a lunch break just like everyone else.”
Union officials said truck backups can form outside terminals for many reasons and that the PMA was highlighting the recent queues to influence public opinion.
The exchanges between the PMA and the ILWU mark the first time the two sides have launched public barbs since negotiations began in May 2022 on a multiyear contract covering more than 22,000 dockworkers at 29 ports from California to Washington. West Coast dockworkers have been working without a contract since the last agreement expired in July.
As recently as Feb. 23, the PMA and the ILWU issued a joint statement saying the parties “continue to negotiate and remain hopeful of reaching a deal soon.” Talks were scheduled to resume Tuesday, according to the PMA.
Previous contract negotiations over the past two decades have been contentious and marked by freight delays that cost individual retailers millions of dollars in increased expenses and lost sales as dockworkers slowed operations and employers locked out workers.
Shipping-industry executives and Biden administration officials had hoped the current talks would go more smoothly, given that they came so soon after cargo bottlenecks at West Coast ports during the Covid-19 pandemic underlined the critical role the gateways play in the U.S. economy. Some administration and industry officials had hoped a deal would be reached by early fall.
The talks stalled last summer and have sputtered since then as dockworkers and employers struggled to find common ground on a range of issues that include the assignment of jobs and the use of automated handling equipment on the docks.
Although there have been some sporadic disruptions in California and Washington since the talks began, last week’s slowdowns at Los Angeles and Long Beach mark the first time actions have affected so many cargo-handling operations at once.
Many importers last summer started diverting cargoes to East and Gulf coast ports in anticipation of potential labor disruptions, and a decline in cargo volumes at Los Angeles and Long Beach, the main gateways for U.S. trade with Asia, has accelerated this year. Combined container imports at the neighboring ports dropped 38% last month from a year earlier, to their lowest level since March 2020.
Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Gene Seroka blamed the drop on factors including a reduction in global trade and on cargo being diverted because of the labor negotiations. “Cargo owners have made it clear that they want the certainty of a signed deal,” Mr. Seroka said Friday.
The PMA said the previous contract gave employers the right to assign staggered shifts during mealtimes. The employer group said that because the contract expired, there is no mechanism to arbitrate the dispute and to require dockworkers to maintain uninterrupted operations.