Feds step in to break port deadlock

Contract talks between unionized dockworkers and their employers at 29 West Coast ports, including those in the Bay Area, resumed in San Francisco Tuesday with the assistance of U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, according to a Port of Oakland spokesman.

Mike Zampa of the Port of Oakland said port officials are “pleased” that President Obama’s administration is now involved in the talks, which have dragged on for nine months. The previous contract for the 20,000 dockworkers represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union expired on July 1.

“We hope that a settlement is reached right away because there are too many people suffering” from work delays and stoppages that have occurred because of labor tensions, Zampa said.

A federal mediator was already involved in the contract talks. White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said in an email that President Obama directed Perez to meet with the parties to urge them to resolve their dispute quickly “out of concern for the economic consequences of further delay.”

Perez will keep the president “fully updated” about the negotiations, Schultz said. The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies that operate at West Coast ports, suspended cargo operations at the ports over the long Presidents Day weekend, saying it didn’t want to pay higher holiday and weekend wages to workers while a slowdown is happening. The PMA also suspended some operations at the ports the previous weekend.

Zampa said cargo operations, which involve loading and unloading container ships, resumed at the Port of Oakland today. He said currently 11 ships are at berths at the Port of Oakland and another 19 ships are waiting for berths to open up there. Zampa said there is “a full complement” of workers at the port today.

A federal mediator who’s been involved in the contract negotiations recently ordered a media blackout barring the two sides from talking to reporters. Before the blackout was imposed, ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said the shipping companies’ allegation that there is a worker slowdown is exaggerated.

Merrilees said productivity has been good at the Port of Oakland and safety concerns at some Southern California ports have led employers to complain the union has been uncooperative. One of the sticking points in negotiations is over how arbitrators are appointed and potentially removed.

The PMA said before the news blackout that it is offering dockworkers a 14 percent pay increase over its proposed five-year contract. The contract talks have been rotating on a weekly basis from the PMA headquarters at 555 Market St. in San Francisco to the ILWU’s office at 1188 Franklin St. in San Francisco.