Despite talks, unions move to shut down Port of Oakland Thursday

OAKLAND, Calif. (KTVU and wires) -- Even as talks between longshoremen and their employers -- ocean shipping companies and the terminal operators -- resumed on Tuesday with the U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez present, officials announced the Port of Oakland will be closed all day Thursday for a rescheduled union meeting.

While that meeting usually takes place in the late afternoon, it has been switched to 8 a.m. in an apparent "in your face" move directed at employers and Perez.

Mike Zampa of the Port of Oakland said port officials are "pleased" that President Obama's administration is now involved in the talks, which have dragged on for nine months.

The previous contract for the 20,000 dockworkers represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union expired on July 1.

"We hope that a settlement is reached right away because there are too many people suffering" from work delays and stoppages that have occurred because of labor tensions, Zampa said.

A federal mediator was already involved in the contract talks.

White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said in an email that President Obama directed Perez to meet with the parties to urge them to resolve their dispute quickly "out of concern for the economic consequences of further delay."

Perez will keep the president "fully updated" about the negotiations, Schultz said.

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies that operate at West Coast ports, suspended cargo operations at the ports over the long Presidents Day weekend, saying it didn't want to pay higher holiday and weekend wages to workers while a slowdown is happening.

The PMA also suspended some operations at the ports the previous weekend.

One would think after what was essentially a four-day shutdown, the Port of Oakland would be a beehive of activity Tuesday. However, even at mid-morning, there appeared to be little happening.

"The ships did not offload this weekend, so we don't have anything of deliver to our customers," Bill Aboudi, owner of AB Trucking, which serves the port.

In one case, two ships sat completely idle and unattended while the cranes that would normally load and unload them were moved to service ships behind them. Everywhere in sight, containers are stacked, packed and racked at the port and surrounding lots. Many more containers remain stuck on ships anchored in the Bay or loitering out at sea waiting to get to a dock.

"We're on standby until those containers become available," said Aboudi.

The stalled talks are what led U.S. Secretary of Labor Perez to meet with the longshore workers as well as the Pacific Maritime Association.

"It means the President is involved, and that's meant to bring political pressure to bear on the dispute which is in its end game," said UC Berkeley labor expert Professor Harley Shaiken. "This is meant to break through that with a compromise that neither side may like but that both sides feel is much preferable to the alternative."

Those affected by the port slowdown are hoping Perez will make a difference.

"If he can help, he's more than welcome because this basically has to find an end to it," said independent port trucker Rashid Bassaid, who is slowly but surely going broke.

The port closure on Thursday -- this time by the union -- is only making an already terrible situation far worse.