West Coast Labor Talks Stall

A dispute between two unions over which workers get certain jobs at a cargo-handling terminal at the Port of Seattle is holding up labor talks between West Coast dockworkers and their employers.

Shipping industry officials had hoped the talks, which began in May, would have concluded around now. Instead, officials say the discussions have stalled for about three months after dockworkers declined to discuss major contract issues pending resolution of the dispute at Seattle. 

The Seattle dispute pits the International Longshore and Warehouse Union against the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.  

The delay illustrates the extent to which disagreements at one facility can derail talks covering more than 22,000 dockworkers at 29 ports along the primary coast for U.S. trade with Asia.

The officials say that when bargaining resumes it will take many more months to resolve remaining issues such as wages and the use of automated machinery on the docks.

Some shipping officials say they don’t understand why the ILWU, which represents the dockworkers in the contract talks, is delaying the negotiations when there are big issues still to resolve. “Everybody is scratching their head,” said one of the officials familiar with the negotiations. “To leave the table this long is very unusual.”

The ILWU is negotiating with the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents about 70 employers including ocean carriers and cargo-handling terminals. The two sides have an agreement not to discuss the talks while they are continuing and both groups declined to comment on the delays.

Jonathan Gold,

vice president for supply chain at the National Retail Federation, said the delays and uncertainty are a worry for importers who rely on the West Coast to bring in goods and who are already struggling with delays moving freight by rail. 

“Folks are very concerned about the impact of any self-inflicted disruptions on supply chain and what that would mean and the ripple effect it would have on the economy,” Mr. Gold said.

West Coast port labor talks are often fraught. The last time the talks dragged on through one year into the next, during 2014 and 2015, it resulted in container ship backups that caused significant delays to goods reaching stores. Importers are already diverting some goods to Gulf Coast and East Coast ports because of the risk of labor strife. 

The port talks are taking place against a backdrop of global freight labor unrest. Ports in the U.K. and Germany suffered sporadic closures earlier this year when dockworkers went on strike. Rail workers in the U.S. came close to striking in September. Biden administration officials, including Labor Secretary

Marty Walsh,

are still trying to avert a walkout after some rail workers rejected labor proposals.   

West Coast dockworkers have been working without a contract since the most recent labor agreement expired in early July. 

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Cargo-handling terminals are operating without grievance machinery in place to handle workplace disputes between dockworkers and their employers, which has led to sporadic disruptions at several ports, including at Tacoma, Wash., and Oakland, Calif. This summer, dockworkers at a Port of Los Angeles terminal operated by a subsidiary of A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S refused to work automated container-handling equipment for several weeks, citing safety concerns.

In the dispute at Seattle, the two unions say they both have jurisdiction to perform certain jobs at the port’s major international cargo-handling facility at Terminal 5.

The most recent episode in the conflict, over which workers perform jobs connecting container ships at berth to onshore power, is the subject of a National Labor Relations Board hearing, which started Nov. 3. 

Some shipping industry officials had hoped the hearings would conclude swiftly, helping to resolve some of the interunion issues. But the hearing has been adjourned until the end of the month because of scheduling issues, according to an NLRB spokeswoman.

Some officials said they expect Mr. Walsh to get more involved in the port contract talks after the midterm elections and that they are hopeful the negotiations could resume soon. 

Write to Paul Berger at paul.berger@wsj.com

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