By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES, Feb 19 (Reuters) - The U.S. labor secretary engaged in a third straight day of talks with shipping executives and union leaders for dockworkers on Thursday seeking to settle a contract dispute that has led to months of disruptions at the 29 ports along the West Coast.
Labor Secretary Tom Perez joined the talks in San Francisco at the behest of President Barack Obama, who has come under growing political pressure to intervene in a conflict that has reverberated through the trans-Pacific commercial supply chain and could, by some estimates, cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, representing 20,000 dockworkers, has been locked in negotiations for nine months with the bargaining agent for shippers and terminal operators, the Pacific Maritime Association.
Labor-management tensions stemming from the talks have played out in worsening cargo congestion that has slowed freight traffic since October at the ports, which handle nearly half of all U.S. maritime trade and more than 70 percent of the country's imports from Asia.
More recently, the shipping companies have sharply curtailed operations at the marine terminals, suspending the loading and unloading of cargo vessels for night shifts, holidays and weekends at the five busiest ports.
Work has been allowed to continue around the clock in the dockyards, rail yards and terminal gates for most of the harbors. Some smaller ports remained open to nighttime vessel operations as well.
But on Thursday, all marine terminal operations came to a halt for the day at the port of Oakland, California, after the local chapter of the ILWU chose to hold its monthly "work stop" membership meeting during the day, port and union officials said.
Such sessions have traditionally been held at night, avoiding a conflict with the busy daytime shift. But because the PMA has already ceased nighttime vessel operations at Oakland and other major ports for the time being, Oakland will end up effectively closed to freighter traffic for 24 hours, the port said.
Port spokesman Mike Zampa said 27 vessels were sitting idle waiting to be loaded or unloaded on Thursday - 12 of them at the docks and 15 more at anchor.
ARBITRATORS AT ISSUE
The union and shipping companies each accuse the other side of instigating such disruptions to gain leverage in the contract talks, which appeared to hit a roadblock in the last two weeks.
Sources familiar with the situation say the chief point of contention is a union demand for changes in the system of submitting workplace disputes during the life of a contract to binding arbitration.
The PMA has said publicly that the union wants to give each side the right to unilaterally remove any of the four West Coast arbitrators at the end of each contract period. The companies said that is because the current arbitrators ruled against the union in 85 percent of labor disputes during the last contract that involved allegations of union work stoppages or slowdowns.
Sources told Reuters that the changes sought by the union are driven primarily by the ILWU's desire to get rid of one arbitrator in particular.
The companies, however, say they are hesitant to accept any changes they feel would expose the arbitrators to intimidation or undermine their independence.
The last time contract talks led to a full shutdown of the West Coast ports was in 2002, when the companies imposed a lockout that was lifted 10 days later under a court order sought by President George W. Bush under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. (Reporting by Steve Gorman; Additional reporting by Krista Hughes in Washington; Editing by Eric Beech)