Union talks at West Coast ports going well, U.S. labor secretary says

Talks to reach a new contract with union workers at West Coast shipping ports before the existing deal expires this week are going well with no major sticking points, U.S. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh told Reuters on Tuesday.

The current contract covering more than 22,000 port laborers at 29 West Coast ports expires on July 1. Retailers, farmers and other U.S. shippers worry that any breakdown in the often-contentious West Coast port labor talks will further disrupt cargo flows and send inflation-fueling transportation costs even higher.

Walsh said he checks in weekly with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) employer group. They “continually tell me that we’re in a good place. It’s moving forward,” Walsh said.

In a rare joint statement on June 14, the ILWU and the PMA said they are not planning any work stoppages or lockouts that would worsen supply chain logjams.

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden met with the two sides as he grapples with supply-chain disruption and inflation that are fueling voter discontent ahead of key mid-term elections in November.

Asked if port automation is a sticking point in the talks, Walsh said: “There’s been no issues that I’m aware of that have come up that have made either side concerned.”

Meanwhile, wary shippers are routing cargo away from the West Coast to avoid potential labor-related slowdowns, particularly at the nation’s busiest seaport complex at Los Angeles/Long Beach.

That change is giving those Southern California ports, which employ the lion’s share of ILWU workers, a chance to clear backlogs. But it is also causing cargo backups at East Coast and Gulf Coast ports like New York/New Jersey, Savannah and Houston.