LOS ANGELES - The contract that keeps thousands of dockworkers on the job at ports from San Diego to Seattle expired Tuesday, but both sides pledged to continue negotiations without a disruption in the billions of dollars of trade that crosses the West Coast waterfront.
The union which represents dockworkers and the association which represents shipping lines and terminal operators at 29 ports issued a joint statement saying that while the current six-year contract will not be extended, both sides will keep talking - and working.
"Cargo will keep moving, and normal operations will continue at the ports until an agreement can be reached between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union," the two groups said.
The expiration without a deal was not a surprise. Indeed, no resolution is expected for weeks, with tough issues including whether workers should shoulder more of the hefty cost of health care yet to be resolved.
As talks drag out, jitters will grow among the companies that last year imported or exported nearly $900 billion worth of cargo through West Coast ports.
The union and maritime association acknowledged that labor peace is essential to keeping those ports competitive, especially with larger vessels able to sail from Asia directly to large East Coast markets once an expansion of the Panama Canal is completed.
"Both sides understand the strategic importance of the ports to the local, regional and U.S. economies, and are mindful of the need to finalize a new coast-wide contract as soon as possible to ensure continuing confidence in the West Coast ports and avoid any disruption to the jobs and commerce they support," the joint statement said.
In 2002 as negotiations reached an impasse, employers locked dockworkers out for 10 days, costing the U.S. economy an estimated $1 billion each day. The economic damage from a work stoppage now would be about $2 billion per day, according to a recent analysis by groups representing retailers and manufacturers.
"If operations are shuttered for an extended period, the detrimental economic impact would be significant and widespread," wrote the authors of the report, which was issued last week and commissioned by the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Retail Federation.
Aside from health care, other issues on the bargaining table include what jobs will remain under union control, the introduction of technology that could eliminate the need for some jobs, and workplace safety.
Both sides are abiding by a media blackout and not publicly discussing any progress at the bargaining table. Negotiations began in mid-May in San Francisco, where both the union and maritime association are based.
In Charleston, stalled labor contract talks prompted the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1422 to authorize a strike last month. Union officials have stressed there is no immediate threat of workers walking off the job.
The strike vote came after the ILA membership rejected a "best and final offer" on a local labor contract from the S.C. Stevedores Association.
The Post and Courier contributed to this report.