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Labor dispute snarls West Coast ports, with the White House urged to step in

The Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, Calif., is one of the gateways for container ships that bring imports from Asia that have intermittently shuttered or slowed in recent days.Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A deepening standoff between dockworkers and port operators has snarled some of the nation’s most crucial import hubs, a dispute that has drawn the attention of the Biden administration as it scrambles to contain work stoppages.

Portions of the ports at Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, and Seattle — gateways for container ships that bring imports from Asia — have intermittently shuttered or slowed in recent days as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Pacific Maritime Association, which represents port operators, try to work out a new contract.

The US economy’s import supply chains run through a system that involves ships, trains, and trucks, and even the slightest disruption can have major spillover effects. Those ports collectively process hundreds of billions of dollars in cargo each year, accounting for products including agricultural goods, manufacturing components and consumer electronics.


The disruptions are a more subdued version of the supply chain turmoil that took hold early in the pandemic and rattled the global economy. Many of those issues have been resolved, in part, because shippers — anticipating potential labor problems — have diverted cargoes to alternative ports on the East and Gulf coasts.

The tensions at the West Coast ports mark the latest episode in which a resurgent labor movement ― emboldened by shortages of skilled workers ― has become a focal point in an economy already showing signs of strain. President Biden became personally involved in mediating a dispute among railway workers last year.

Now it is the West Coast’s dockworkers, who handle the difficult and sometimes dangerous work of getting heavy shipments off ships and onto trucks, standing at a critical juncture for the US economy. And many of them have been skipping shifts.

The union and port employers have mostly settled issues related to port automation and benefits, but they remain far apart on pay, according to two people briefed on the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the fragility of the talks.


Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su has had near-daily conversations with negotiators to try to end the standoff, the people said.

The maritime association contends members of a dockworkers union have engaged in “concerted and disruptive work actions” for several days.

“Union leaders are implementing many familiar disruption tactics from their job action playbook, including refusing to dispatch workers to marine terminals, slowing operations, and making unfounded health and safety claims,” according to a statement the association posted late Monday on Twitter.

When asked for comment Tuesday, union officials referred to a statement released Friday by ILWU President Willie Adams. He pointed to “historic” profits made by port operators, which the union estimated topped $510 billion during the pandemic.

“We aren’t going to settle for an economic package that doesn’t recognize the heroic efforts and personal sacrifices of the ILWU workforce that lifted the shipping industry to record profits,” Adams said.

More than 22,000 dockworkers at 29 ports along the West Coast have been working without a contract since July. With no deal in place, several West Coast ports have experienced intermittent closures. In other cases, company officials have confronted a dearth of skilled union workers willing to take on shifts at times when they are needed.