SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. A tentative agreement has been reached between shipping lines and the union that represents 20,000 dock workers on the West Coast. The agreement was announced last night. It all but assures that a lockout or strike has been averted. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports the partial shutdowns and sporadic work stoppages common in recent weeks are also those expected to end.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Neither the Pacific Maritime Association nor the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is releasing any details of this agreement, but a joint statement from both groups says the tentative five-year contract covering workers at all 29 West Coast ports is good for the workers and the industry. A statement from the White House called the deal a huge relief for the American economy. Labor Secretary Tom Perez was in San Francisco this week, pressing both sides to come to a deal. While the union's rank and file has been working without a contract since last July, most of the major sticking points had been resolved by this week except one - arbitration. In the new contract, the unions were said to have been fighting for the authority to fire arbitrators during disputes between workers and employers. The details of this power struggle will become clearer in the coming days, but right now it's safe to say that both sides are happy that full operations will resume. So are the ports themselves.
MICHAEL GOLD: It will give some certainty and yes, there are a number of ships that are at anchor waiting to come to port.
SIEGLER: Michael Gold is a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach. The twin ports of Long Beach and LA are the busiest in the nation, handling roughly a billion dollars-worth of cargo a day. There are currently almost two dozen large container ships here anchored off the coast waiting to get in. But Gold says the docks themselves are at almost 100 percent capacity.
GOLD: There's a massive backlog and this will help us to dig out of it. And my understanding is that the ILWU will go back to work right away so we can begin dealing with this massive backlog.
SIEGLER: There was a congestion crisis brewing at West Coast ports even before this nine-month labor dispute. One reason is recent logistical changes, another is simply that there are more new mega container ships coming into these West Coast ports. Jock O'Connell is an international trade economist.
JOCK O'CONNELL: This is a positive step, but it's going to take a considerable period of time before that backlog is cleared away and the ports can resume operations under their normally congested conditions.
SIEGLER: But O'Connell says this drawn out labor dispute has sent a bad signal to importers and exporters, and some cargo companies are now looking for ways to bypass the West Coast.
O'CONNELL: The ports are going to have to do a great deal to sell themselves back to their customers.
SIEGLER: Meanwhile, it could take at least another week or longer before this tentative agreement is ratified. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Culver City, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.