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U.S. West Coast port labor skirmishes mount; contract still elusive

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(Reuters) – West Coast seaport employers on Monday ratcheted up pressure on unions representing 22,000 workers who are trying to win a bigger share of record profits reaped when cargo shipments surged during the pandemic.

West Coast ports stretching from California to Washington state are critical to U.S. supply chains and the nation’s economy. Workers at those trade gateways have been without a contract since July and talks – now in their final stretch – have entered their 13th month.

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing terminal operators with ties to the shipping companies that enjoyed a hefty financial windfall from COVID-19, said port operations in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Seattle on Sunday suffered disruptions due to labor shortages.

Weekend operations at many U.S. seaports are limited, seaport operators said. Still, several have confirmed that labor shortages have slowed or stopped work during the talks. For example, ships have been delayed at berth at the No. 1 U.S. container gateway at Los Angeles/Long Beach, due to a lack of “lashers” who secure and unlock containers onboard vessels.

Labor actions and complaints about their impact are not uncommon in the last stages of negotiations as each side looks for leverage. Weary customers are lobbying U.S. President Joe Biden to intervene in the standoff as the peak shipping season approaches and drought threatening the Panama Canal makes rerouting cargo to rival East Coast ports more difficult and expensive.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) declined comment on Monday.

On Saturday, the union’s International President Willie Adams said “West Coast ports are open as we continue to work under our expired collective bargaining agreement.” He reiterated the union’s intention of reaching an agreement.

A week ago Adams said the union would not settle for a package that did not compensate members for risking their health while employers benefited financially.

U.S. freight railroad workers – who were also critical during the pandemic – recently won a contract that included a 24% raise over five years. U.S. lawmakers and President Biden stepped in to finalize that deal.

(Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles and Kannaki Deka in Bengaluru; Editing by Maju Samuel)

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