Dockworkers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are slowing operations to gain leverage during contract negotiations, management said.
The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents employers operating port terminals and shipping lines, said the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has refused to dispatch hundreds of skilled workers that transport cargo containers at terminals.
A union spokesman did not respond to those accusations, but said contract negotiations are ongoing.
Employers said the slowdowns started Monday and could cripple the nation’s largest port complex, which is already suffering from the worst congestion in a decade.
“The ILWU’s orchestrated job actions are threatening the West Coast’s busiest ports and potentially billions of dollars in commerce,” Pacific Maritime Assn. spokesman Wade Gates said in a statement.
In recent weeks, ships have been forced to anchor off the Los Angeles coastline for days, as they wait for cargo languishing on the docks to clear.
The congestion stems from several factors including a surge of cargo before the holidays, the increase of massive container ships that are deluging the docks with cargo, and a shortage of trailers that truckers use to haul containers from the ports to sprawling warehouses in the Inland Empire.
Now, management says dockworkers are contributing to the mess.
“The ILWU has resorted to its old playbook of slowdowns in order to leverage the employers at the bargaining table,” Gates said.
In an email, union spokesman Craig Merrilees did not directly address those allegations.
But he said, “Workers are frustrated because employers have delayed action for years on the underlying issues that created the port congestion … – including many of their own making – and have also been delaying resolution of the contract talks for many months.”
A six-year contract covering nearly 20,000 dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports expired July 1.
In 2002, talks for a contract broke down between the union and employers, leading to a 10-day lockout that briefly crippled international trade along the West Coast.
Until recently, the current negotiations appeared amicable in public.
However, on Monday the Pacific Maritime Assn. accused the union of slowing down operations at the ports of Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., and breaking an agreement to continue “normal” operations during contract negotiations.
The union, in response, called the assertion that such an agreement was reached a “bold-faced lie.” It said the two sides have never agreed on what “normal” operations are.
“PMA’s media offensive is designed to smear the union and to deflect responsibility from a growing congestion problem that is plaguing major West Coast ports,” the union said Monday in a statement.
In response to rising tensions, the National Retail Federation and other business groups sent a letter Thursday to President Obama, urging that a federal mediator help the two sides reach an agreement.
Merrilees said contract negotiations were underway Friday.