- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2015

With a long-running labor dispute delaying dozens of cargo ships offshore, President Obama has ordered his labor secretary to California to try to avoid a shutdown of 29 West Coast ports.

Mr. Obama directed Labor Secretary Tom Perez on Saturday to renew talks between shipping companies and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents more than 20,000 dock workers. The president took the action while visiting Southern California for some relaxation and golf over the three-day holiday weekend.

The administration is trying to help resolve a labor slowdown that has idled tens of thousands of containers on cargo ships over the weekend, threatening to worsen the economic harm that already has rippled throughout much of the country. About 40 percent of the nation’s container cargo imports arrive at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports.

“The negotiations over the functioning of the West Coast ports have been taking place for months with the administration urging the parties to resolve their differences,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Saturday. “Out of concern for the economic consequences of further delay, the president has directed his Secretary of Labor Tom Perez to travel to California to meet with the parties to urge them to resolve their dispute quickly at the bargaining table.”

The union and the Pacific Maritime Association held a bargaining session on Thursday, their first meeting in nearly a week.

The National Retail Federation, which has been urging Mr. Obama to take a more active role in the dispute, welcomed the president’s move.

“The slowdowns, congestion and suspensions at the West Coast ports need to end now,” Jonathan Gold, the federation’s vice president for supply chain, said in a statement.

After nine months of talks, the two sides agree on key issues including health care but remain gridlocked over rules governing the removal of arbitrators, who settle disputes on the docks. The union has been working without a contract since July.

The unloading of ships is expected to resume Tuesday. But the congestion has been building for months because of the labor dispute and other factors. And the holiday weekend stoppage heightens fear of a longer-term disruption.

Some businesses have tried expensive work-arounds such as rerouting goods via air or through Gulf of Mexico and East Coast ports, analysts said. Items ordered by retailers for the spring probably won’t reach stores on time. Deliveries from Asian manufacturers could be delayed until after the Chinese New Year, which starts next week.

For now, retailers still have inventory left over from the holiday season, analysts said. But they will need new shipments before the busy spring shopping season.

Communities close to the ports have been hit first and hardest. In Los Angeles, which has recovered slowly from the recession, truck drivers and warehouse workers are already seeing their hours cut.

Elsewhere in the state, the agriculture industry is in pain.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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