Port of Los Angeles

Trucks in San Pedro begin to clear the cargo backlog at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

By Tiffany Hsu, Andrew Khouri and Peter Jamison
February 21, 2015

West Coast ports are emerging from the most contentious labor dispute in more than a decade, but lingering resentment and structural problems may complicate a return to normality.

Activity picked up Saturday at Western harbors after the dockworkers union and employers reached a tentative agreement late Friday on a new five-year contract that will cover 20,000 workers at 29 ports.

The resolution followed months of difficult negotiations that contributed to an extended slowdown at the docks. Cargo was stranded, disrupting operations for Central Valley citrus growers, Midwest auto factories, McDonald’s restaurants in Japan and many other businesses.

The ordeal darkened public perception of major trade portals such as the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports, which together process 40% of the nation’s incoming container cargo. Experts said that members of the Pacific Maritime Assn. — large shipping lines and port terminal operators — and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have a hard fight ahead to win back respect and lost customers.

“I think the parties have an understanding of the impact of this disruption,” U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez said in an interview. “They understand that they not only have to restore service, they have to restore confidence.”

Perez was dispatched by President Obama to meet with employers and the union last week and urge settlement on a new contract. A few months after the last contract expired in July, activity at the ports began to dramatically slow and each side blamed the other.

Shaming appears to have been among the tactics used to encourage a resolution.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti joined the talks and told negotiators that they were wasting time with internal squabbles as competition loomed from ports in Mexico and the opening of a widened Panama Canal due next year.

Some trade business never returned to Southern California after the employers locked out dockworkers for 10 days in 2002, Garcetti told The Times.

“If we lose those excess dollars, that is the difference for me in whether I have dollars in modernizing the port,” he said.

Garcetti said he also offered a reality check about how the standoff was affecting their industry’s reputation.

“I wanted to let them know how people view this out there in the real world. The retailers and others think you both right now are incompetent or incapable,” Garcetti recalled telling negotiators.

Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, acknowledged that public perception and concern for affected businesses helped the sides come to an agreement.

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