Negotiators trying to resolve labor strife at West Coast seaports took Thursday off, as dockworkers gathered to rally against employers they say are trying to exploit a crisis of cargo congestion at harbors that handle about $1 trillion worth of goods annually.
Earlier this month a federal mediator intervened in contract bargaining that began eight months ago but by fall had deteriorated into a blame game, as goods languished on docks.
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Longshoremen have been working without a contract since the previous one expired in July.
The companies operating port terminals assert that workers have slowed the rate at which they process containers brought from Asia aboard massive ships, adding to gridlock as mountains of imports dwell on dockside yards.
Employers started scaling back work crews this month, saying they won't unload ships at night and instead are focused on clearing the backlog from dockside yards. They say the strategy is working.
"I'm told that there's been some improvement in the last week," said Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents terminal operators and shipping lines.
Longshoremen dispute employer statistics that indicate their productivity has dropped and say employers are cutting back jobs to hurt workers and pressure negotiators for their union into a bad deal.
As for congestion, dockworkers say they're not culpable and cite broader problems with the supply chain, including a shortage of truck beds to haul containers from yards to distribution warehouses.
What's more, congestion at Los Angeles and Long Beach — by far the nation's largest ports — is not improving with the cutting back of crews, according to local officials with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
"The employers' action is punitive. It's a measure to hit the pocketbooks of the workforce. It has zero to do with relieving congestion," said Bobby Olvera, Jr., president of the union's Local 13 branch.
Olvera and other union leaders planned to participate in simultaneous marches Thursday evening in Los Angeles and Tacoma, Washington.
West Coast seaports handle about one-quarter of the nation's trade, as measured by dollar value, according to international trade expert Jock O'Connell of Beacon Economics. That means about $1 trillion worth of imports or exports crosses West Coast docks annually.
Contract talks, taking place in San Francisco, were expected to resume Friday.
Aside from a tentative agreement over the summer on health care costs, there have been no publicly announced breakthroughs. In addition to wages, other issues include whether the union will be able to have jurisdiction over the maintenance and repair of truck chasses.
Contact Justin Pritchard at http://twitter.com/lalanewsman .