The nation's top labor official is bringing a clear message to dockworkers and their employers whose contract dispute has crippled international trade through the West Coast's seaports: Reach a deal, and fast.

U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez held what his office characterized as "positive and productive meetings" Tuesday with both the dockworkers' union and the maritime association representing companies that own, load and unload massive ocean-going ships laden with imports from Asia and U.S. exports.

It was his first full day in San Francisco, where both the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and Pacific Maritime Association are based. Perez renews his efforts Wednesday, with political and economic pressure rising to get a contract and free cargo bottlenecks at 29 ports that handle about $1 trillion of trade annually.

As contract talks have stalled, so too has the flow of trade. Dozens of ships are anchored off Southern California, and in San Francisco Bay and Washington's Puget Sound. They're waiting for dock space that — whether due to employer lockouts of workers or work slowdowns alleged by employers — is taking weeks to free up.

Perez does not have legal authority to force an agreement, but outsiders hope he can resolve differences that a federal mediator could not.

The two sides already have reached tentative agreements on key issues including health benefits and what jobs the union can retain in the future.

And their wage proposals are not far apart. Under the prior contract, which expired in July, average wages exceed $50 an hour, according to the maritime association.

"While the parties have made tremendous progress, Secretary Perez stressed that it's imperative the parties come to an immediate agreement to prevent further damage to our economy and further pain for American workers and their employers," the labor secretary's office said in a statement Tuesday.

Spokesmen for the union and maritime association declined to comment, citing a media blackout.

The issue that brought talks to a stalemate is whether to change the system for arbitrating allegations of work slowdowns, discrimination and other conflicts.

The union is pushing changes that would let either side dismiss an arbitrator when the contract expires, typically after six years. Both sides would then have to agree on a replacement. Motivating this demand is a desire to replace the arbitrator who handles grievances in Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The maritime association wants to keep the current system, under which arbitrators effectively have lifetime appointments. The association has argued that reappointment pressure might cause arbitrators to sacrifice their independence because of worries they might offend one side and jeopardize their future.

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Contact Justin Pritchard at http://twitter.com/lalanewsman .