PORTLAND — A federal judge on Friday appointed former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski to help settle a dispute between two unions that has slowed the flow of cargo at the Port of Portland.
U.S. District Judge Michael Simon said the slowdown staged by longshore workers has caused economic harm to the region and the suffering will only get worse without a quick resolution. He ordered lawyers to meet with Kulongoski starting Monday.
Simon made the surprise announcement late Friday afternoon, at the end of a 31/2-hour hearing in which the National Labor Relations Board asked for a temporary restraining order that would require workers to speed things up or risk a contempt of court charge.
The judge did not act on that request.
The slowdown involves a dispute between members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers over which workers should plug-in and unplug refrigerated shipping containers known as reefers.
The conflict has led the two main shipping lines that use the port's Terminal 6 — Germany's Hapag-Lloyd AG and South Korea's Hanjin — to divert their ships to other ports. Truck traffic at the port has been backed up for more than two weeks.
Amanda Gamblin, a lawyer for the company that operates Terminal 6, told the judge that the gates could close next week if normal operations don't resume.
The economic damage from the slowdown has not been tallied, but more than 1,000 regional businesses depend on the container terminal to get their goods to or from international markets. When ships are diverted and cargo must be rerouted, that adds cost, and potentially devastating delays for imports or exports of perishable or seasonal items.
"Oregon has had significant success positioning itself as a key player in the global economy, selling our goods and services to the world," Gov. John Kitzhaber said Friday. "An important part of the strategy is being able to actually move goods around the world. Being hamstrung from doing so is a significant setback."
Portland's Terminal 6 is by far the smallest of the West Coast's six container-shipping ports. It's also at a disadvantage with the other Pacific ports because it's more than 100 miles from the mouth of the Columbia River, and ships need pilots to bring them to port.
"When you step up to the plate, you already have two strikes, and then they get into these disputes over this trivial stuff," said Bob Coleman, director of business development at Allports Inc., a freight forwarder. "In the end, it's going to hurt both unions, the bar pilots, the river pilots and everybody who's engaged in international trade."
Port managers are concerned that the shippers bypassing Portland might decide they can live without the port. "When cargo is diverted, there is no set guarantee that it's going to come back when this is resolved," said Josh Thomas, a Port of Portland spokesman.
The dispute is over the equivalent of two full-time jobs.
The electrical workers have maintained the reefers for decades under an agreement with the port. In 2010, the port decided to lease Terminal 6 operations to a private firm, ICTSI Oregon Inc.; the 25-year lease affirms that the reefer jobs belong to electrical workers.
But with a private company in control, the longshoremen say the jobs must switch to them because of the collective bargaining agreement between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association that covers all West Coast ports.
The judge gave Kulongoski, a former labor lawyer who served as governor from 2003 to 2011, the power to order the sides to meet face-to-face and engage in serious negotiations. He will be paid $350 an hour, with the costs split between ICTSI, the unions and the port.