Dock labor disputes must end now

A container ship sits docked in a berth at the Port of Oakland last week in Oakland, California.

Story highlights

  • Labor negotiations on West Coast ports will have major economic impact if the dispute isn't settled soon
  • Thomas Donohue: President Obama can use his bully pulpit to ramp up the urgency on these talks

Thomas J. Donohue is the president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, an organization representing companies and businesses associations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)West Coast dock workers and port management have been locked in heated labor negotiations since their contract expired in July of 2014 . Such negotiations are often difficult and proceed in fits and starts. But in this case, the increasingly contentious and protracted dispute could have major economic consequences for America if it isn't settled soon.

During these negotiations, port operations have gradually slowed as each side seeks to put pressure on the other. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association need to set aside their differences and reach an agreement that will ensure the continued success and competitiveness of these ports. And it is imperative that an agreement be reached without any further slowdowns or shutdowns.
Thomas J. Donohue
This serious drag in talks threatens to disrupt the U.S. economic recovery, which is still fragile. The negotiators aren't the ones suffering -- it's all of the other industries, employers and employees throughout the country who depend on goods moving in and out of the ports.
    Agricultural exports are rotting at the ports, and in some cases, in the fields. They can't be picked because they can't be shipped. Manufacturers are shutting down shifts for lack of imported parts and losing overseas customers because goods are not being shipped, or they're resorting to air shipments that cost significantly more than traditional shipping methods.
    Retailers are not getting critical merchandise for the upcoming spring and summer seasons. Trucking and railroad companies are either sitting idle or handling far less cargo, and trains are not moving westward because they cannot unload, which is causing disruptions in the rail freight system across the country.
    This brinksmanship is also causing long-term damage to the reliability of American companies. When international customers can't get what they need from American suppliers -- both agricultural and manufactured -- there are plenty of competitors from other countries ready to step in. Once those contracts are lost, they will be very difficult to get back.
    Similarly, there will be long-term consequences for the West Coast ports as shippers and those who rely on goods moving in and out of these ports find other ways to bring their cargo into North America -- either through Canada, Mexico or through the expanded Panama Canal to the Gulf and East Coast ports. Even if a deal was done tomorrow, there will be many months before all the backed up cargo is pushed through the system.
    Ultimately, if there is a full shutdown, it will cost exporters, importers, shippers and others an estimated $2 billion a day. The 10-day shutdown in 2002 cost the economy and estimated $1 billion a day and took a half year to clear out the backlog of containers.
    The situation has reached crisis point, and the parties must find a way to get a deal and get goods moving again. The situation is so urgent, and distress over the West Coast ports has become so widespread, that lawmakers from both sides of the aisle held a news conference at the Capitol last week to press for action.
    We have called on President Barack Obama to use his bully pulpit to ramp up the urgency on these negotiations and make clear to the parties that the country is desperate for them to get a deal. We were pleased to see that President Obama dispatched Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez to California to meet with the parties and convey to them the desperate need to find a resolution. We've been encouraged that Secretary Perez has reached out to learn about the impacts this stalemate is causing throughout the country.
    If a full shutdown does occur, we will request that the President use his full authority under the Taft-Hartley Act to force the parties back into negotiations and keep the ports open. The answer, though, is for the parties to come together now and reach an agreement.