Federal mediators have been brought in this week to help resolve the months-long labor negotiations at U.S. West Coast ports.  Retailers, manufacturers, and government officials, who have been calling for this action for months, hailed the decision as “welcome news” and signaling a possible end to costly uncertainty and delays seen at 29 U.S. West Coast Ports.

Contract talks, which take place every six years, began May 12 and continued after the previous contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA)  expired on June 30.

PMA, which represents employers operating shipping lines and terminals, has said work rules, wages, and whether certain jobs are done by the union or others remain unresolved.  At tentative agreement on healthcare was reached in August.

Last month, The Pacific Maritime Association asked the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in December to consent to federal mediation but the union balked, saying that talks were making slow but steady progress on their own.

However, last week, a dispute between the PMA and the ILWU, which represents 42,000 workers at West Coast ports, intensified.  The PMA accused the union of provided reduced numbers of crane operators to move containers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which, combined, handle about 40 percent of all containerized freight for the nation, and called for a reduction in the number of workers unloading ships.  The local union president called the move “irresponsible,” saying it could lead to a “calamitous backup” at the already congested ports.

The argument over labor arrangements at Los Angles and Long Beach, raised increased alarm among government officials, and import and exporters nationwide, spurring more calls over the weekend for mediation. Ultimately, both the PMA and the ILWU sought help for federal mediation.

“This is the first positive news from the West Coast ports in some time,” Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation,” said in a statement.  However, Gold said it is unlikely that details about progress in the negotiations will be released until a deal is done.

Mediation has been used before in port disputes. Federal mediators helped East and Gulf Coast dock workers reach a six-year deal in 2013.  And, during 2002 negotiations, when a 10-day lockout on the West Coast rippled through the U.S. economy, mediation helped lead to a final agreement.

“It’s a promising development, but by no means is it a slam dunk that we’ll see a swift resolution of this contract dispute,” said international trade economist Jock O’Connell.  This is because mediators can only prod both sides to continue to talk and recommend ways to resolve differences, but the mediator cannot impose any binding resolutions.