U.S. Labor Secretary Will Watch West Coast Ports' Contract Talks 'Very Closely'

By Josh Eidelson (Bloomberg) —

U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said he’ll be closely watching West Coast dockworkers’ contract talks in coming months, and is ready to get involved as needed, amid concerns about potential disruptions that could add to supply-chain problems fueling inflation.

“I don’t foresee an issue today in the negotiation,” Walsh said in an interview Tuesday. “I’ll monitor it very closely, because at the end of the day, the last thing we want to do is see any further disruption. The American people don’t need disruption.”

A labor contract covering about 22,000 West Coast dockworkers, at sites including the pivotal Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, expires on July 1. Some past disputes between the union and management have proved crippling for shipments to the western seaboard, stoking fears of a repeat just as dockyards work to clear backlogs of goods.

Walsh, who has recently visited several ports and met with union and company leaders, said it’s premature to worry about a breakdown in not-yet-started talks. They will involve the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the employer group Pacific Maritime Association.

“I know a lot of people are concerned about it — and as they should be, because of all of the challenges over the past couple years with getting ships into the country and unloading,” he said by phone. “But I’m not that concerned about it today.” Walsh said that, in his conversations with both sides, “everyone understands the sense of urgency of keeping the ports moving forward and bringing products into the United States.”

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The 29 ports on the U.S. West Coast are vital links to the global economy, processing about 44% of all inbound goods and 61% of imports from Asia. In anticipation of possible labor strife, American importers are already looking at alternatives to move their goods through the U.S. Gulf and East coasts, causing bottlenecks at container-shipping hubs like South Carolina’s Port of Charleston.

“I’ll be as involved as they need me to be” in the negotiations, the Labor secretary said. “A month from now you and I might have a very different conversation.”

–With assistance from Laura Curtis and Brendan Murray.

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P.

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