West Coast Port Slowdown Prompts Visit From U.S. Secretary of Labor

President Barack Obama is sending his labor secretary to San Francisco to help broker an agreement in a contract dispute that has affected the flow of goods from Asia into West Coast ports.

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez plans to meet Tuesday with negotiators for both the dockworkers' union and the maritime association, which represents shipping lines that carry cargo and port terminal operators that handle it once the ships dock.

The two sides began meeting in May and have reached tentative agreements on many of the key issues, but are stuck on whether to change the process of arbitrating workplace disputes and wages.

The maritime association says average wages exceed $50 an hour; the union says wages are set between $26 to $36 an hour — though many shifts carry a premium over that range.

Starting Saturday, employers locked out dockworkers who load or unload cargo on and off ships, saying they have slowed work as a bargaining tactic. As a result, cranes have been raised, stationary and eerily quiet on normally bustling waterfronts.

The waters off Los Angeles, Oakland and Washington state's Puget Sound have become parking lots for dozens of ships, laden with imports awaiting space at the docks.

The ports are a critical trade link with Asia and the gateway not just for imports such as electronics, household goods and clothing but also U.S. exports including produce and meat.

"We're afraid if our products don't arrive in our particular countries in East Asian our customers will have to go out and find other sources," said Hal Shenson, a food exporter.

The port slowdown has meant Shenson's company, Nature's Sun Grown Foods, has not been able to ship out products to Asia in a timely manner for months.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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