Business group urges Biden to intervene in West Coast ports labor dispute

By David Shepardson and Lisa Baertlein

(Reuters) -The largest U.S. business group on Friday urged President Joe Biden him to intervene immediately and appoint an independent mediator to address a protracted West Coast ports labor dispute.

West Coast ports stretching from California to Washington state are critical to U.S. supply chains and the nation’s economy. More than 22,000 dockworkers at those trade gateways have been working without a contract since July. U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Suzanne Clark in a letter to Biden cited “continued and potentially expanded service disruptions at these ports heading into peak shipping season.”

Tensions remain high as negotiators for the employers’ Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) and workers’ International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) tussle over wages and retroactive pay in the last leg of talks that have stretched into their 13th month.

The PMA on Friday said the ports of Seattle and Tacoma “continue to suffer significant slowdowns as a result of targeted ILWU work actions.” Representatives from those ports were not immediately available for comment.

Unions are seeking a pay increase that reflects workers’ contribution to the ocean shipping industry’s record profits from the pandemic cargo boom. They also want added compensation for the hours worked since their contract expired.

Operations at the nation’s busiest ocean trade gateways at Los Angeles and Long Beach have “generally improved” after nearly a week of sporadic labor slowdowns and stoppage, PMA said on Friday. The employer group said vessel loading and unloading was delayed due to a shortage of “lashers” who secure cargo containers on ships.

ILWU declined to comment.

Workers reported for duty on Thursday and Friday at the Port of Los Angeles, officials said.

“Operations going into the weekend seem to be the most normal they’ve been” since labor disruptions started late last week, Los Angeles port spokesman Phillip Sanfield said, adding that the port has limited weekend hours.

Terminal operations in Oakland, near San Francisco, have also returned to normal, a spokesperson said.

Port executives are eager for a resolution since some shipping customers have rerouted goods to facilities on the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico, denting business.

Retailers, manufacturers, farmers and other West Coast port customers also are lobbying Biden as the peak shipping season approaches and routes between Asia and rival U.S. ports get more expensive due to a drought that is lowering water levels in the Panama Canal.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Mark Potter)