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Deal May Be In Sight For Pacific Coast Longshoremen


A delay in products showing up on store shelves can be tracked back to a slowdown in shipping and a major labor dispute on the West Coast. Dock workers in shipping company have been at odds over a new contract for nearly eight months now. Well, today, there are signs a deal may be close. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Dock workers with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been working without a contract since July. At first, one of the big sticking points was over healthcare and other benefits. More recently, it's been over maintenance contracts for the trucks and trailers that haul the containers off the ships.

The Pacific Maritime Association blamed the union for deliberately slowing down operations at ports, especially in the northwest. And last month, amid fears of a broader strike that would cripple goods movement across the U.S., the Obama administration dispatched federal mediators to help move things along.

WADE GATES: We still have a number of issues to discuss. We are making slow progress.

SIEGLER: That's Wade Gates, spokesman for the Maritime Association. There’s widespread speculation that a deal could come as soon as this weekend. And a lot is hanging in the balance. Take the largest port complex in the U.S. here in Los Angeles in Long Beach.

There are 19 large container ships just anchored, idling off shore right now, waiting for free space. Usually you'd see one or two. Over the holiday season, retailers blamed congestion at these ports for late deliveries. And right now, it's farmers who are most anxious. Grain producers along the northern plains and California's walnut growers - they’re worried about exports sitting on the docks and rotting. Again, Wade Gates.

GATES: Some of the union actions took a difficult situation and made it even worse.

SIEGLER: A spokesman for the longshoremen declined to do an interview on tape. But the union points to a host of other factors that are contributing to the broader congestion crisis at west coast ports. They say shipping lines are bringing in more and more cargo on bigger and bigger vessels. They’re making logistical decisions that are slowing things down. Industry analysts say there's plenty of blame to go around. And port operators are in the middle of it.

JOCK O'CONNELL: I think from the perspective of the port - the authorities - the supply chain has been stressed to the point of its nearly breaking.

SIEGLER: Jock O'Connell is an international trade expert at Beacon Economics. A deal or no labor deal coming, he says there's still going to be a congestion crisis and companies should expect to lose business in the months ahead.

O'CONNELL: No one should be under the illusion that settlement of the labor contract dispute will result in efficiently running ports. The ports have been suffering from congested conditions for the better part of the last 12 months.

SIEGLER: But O'Connell says there is reason to breathe a little more easily today. It appears for now that a strike or lockout is less and less likely. And everyone agrees that a full-blown shut down at west coast ports would have much bigger impacts on the national economy. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Culver City, California. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.