SEATTLE, WASHINGTON, U.S. — U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez will travel to California to help settle a dispute between shipping companies and longshore workers that led to a shutdown of ports along the U.S. West Coast Feb. 14-16, the White House said on Feb. 14.

"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. "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 Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) said it shut down the ports because of ongoing and costly International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) slowdowns. It said yard, gate and rail operations continued at terminal operators’ discretion.

Terminals impacted by the closures included: United Grain, Vancouver, Washington, U.S., owned by Mitsui of Japan; Temco, Tacoma, Washington, U.S., owned by Cargill and CHS; Columbia Grain, Portland, Oregon, U.S., owned by Marubeni of Japan; Louis Dreyfus, Seattle, Washington, U.S., owned by LDC, Netherlands.

The PMA also closed the West Coast ports the weekend of Feb. 7 and Feb. 12, and canceled a negotiating session with the ILWU scheduled for Feb. 11. The two parties have been negotiating a new labor contract for the last nine months.

Weekend and holiday pay rates command a premium of at least 50% of the basic longshore wage rate. PMA said it will not pay ILWU workers such high rates for severely diminished productivity while the backlog of cargo at West Coast ports grows.

PMA spokesman Wade Gates said the group made a comprehensive contract offer to the ILWU.

“The ILWU responded with demands they knew we could not meet, and continued slowdowns that will soon bring West Coast ports to gridlock. What they’re doing amounts to a strike with pay, and we will reduce the extent to which we pay premium rates for such a strike,” Gates said.

PMA said the ILWU is pushing demands that it said would cripple the West Coast waterfront, including the right to fire any arbitrator who rules against them at the end of each contract period.

During the 2008-14 contract period, the four area arbitrators found the ILWU guilty of more than 200 slowdowns or work stoppages, PMA said.

“The ILWU’s current slowdowns, now in their fourth month, show the very reason that we need a healthy arbitration system in place,” Gates said. “It is essential to be able to prevent the crippling slowdowns that are impacting workers and businesses across the nation.”

PMA said it offered a contract that would raise ILWU wages by 14% over five-years, on top of current average full-time wages of $147,000 per year. It would maintain fully employer-paid health care, worth $35,000 per year, and increase the ILWU pension to as much as $88,800 per year.

The ILWU said PMA’s comments grossly mischaracterize the ILWU’s current bargaining position.

“It seems to us that the employers are trying to sabotage negotiations,” said ILWU President Robert McEllrath. “They are not just hurting workers, families and communities, what our employers are doing is bad for the industry and the U.S. economy. This is an effort by the employers to put economic pressure on our members and to gain leverage in contract talks. The Union is standing by ready to negotiate, as we have been for the past several days.”

The ports of Seattle and Tacoma in Washington, U.S., on Feb. 12 urged the PMA and ILWU to resolve the impasse.

“The ports do not have a seat at the negotiating table, however we have been exercising the limited options available to try to mitigate impacts on our customers and to keep cargo moving,” port officials said.

“We share the frustration of the farmers, manufacturers, retailers, truckers and warehouse and distribution operators, who are suffering collateral damage as they continue to lose billions of dollars and lay off employees.”

A lockout or strike would put even more stress on the working people throughout the state who rely on ports for their livelihood, port officials said.

Taken together, marine cargo operations in Tacoma and Seattle, Washington, U.S., support more than 48,000 jobs across the region and provide a critical gateway for the export of Washington state products to Asia.

This protracted negotiation is resulting in widespread economic damage and will have a lasting impact on the state’s economy, port officials said.