LOS ANGELES >> Negotiators working on a new contract for dockworkers at West Coast seaports, which handle about $1 trillion worth of cargo annually, have resolved a key dispute in their difficult talks, an association representing employers said Monday.
Dockworkers continued to move containers after the contract expired in July, but by autumn disputes at the bargaining table spilled into the workplace and cargo has struggled to cross ports that account for about one-quarter of the nation’s international trade.
Agricultural exporters say some goods spoil before they get to market, while importers of furniture and other consumer products say their products are stuck on the docks rather than in stores.
The new agreement addresses neither wages nor pensions, but what would seem an ancillary issue: who maintains and repairs the truck beds used to haul containers of cargo from dockside yards to distribution warehouses. Chassis repair became a big stumbling block, however, because automation at seaports is expected to take jobs — and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union wants to find new members where it can.
“This has been a major topic of conversation for a few weeks, and with this tentative agreement, the hope is we can make progress toward reaching a final contract,” said Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents companies that own huge ocean-going ships and operate dockside terminals where workers load or unload cargo.
While the union’s rank-and-file would still need to approve the deal as part of a final contract package, the fact that their negotiators agreed to it suggests employers will allow the union to control the jobs.
A spokesman for the union, which represents workers at 29 ports from San Diego to Seattle, had no comment.
The chassis deal came during a weekend bargaining overseen by a federal mediator, who intervened earlier this month after both sides asked for help amid their protracted stalemate. It was the first publicly announced progress since the summer, when the two sides settled health benefits.
Outsiders took some encouragement.
“Everybody would welcome a quick wrap-up to this nightmare of negotiations,” said Jonathan Gold, a vice president at the National Retail Federation, whose members have for months complained that the port labor dispute is harming their businesses.
The chassis issue reflects deeper problems at West Coast ports, particularly at the massive complex in the harbors of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
Functioning truck beds have been in short supply at those ports, an important factor that has contributed to the slow movement of cargo. Longshoremen have argued that employers miscalculated when they exited the chassis business, because outside companies got control over an asset that is essential to speeding containers out of dockside yards.
Employers counter that congestion on the docks got bad this fall when dockworkers began slowing their work — or not dispatching the most qualified workers. On Monday, it was a point the maritime association continued to hammer.
“The slowdowns continue to create problems and economic harm,” spokesman Getzug said.