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Port Talks Suspended; Tension Rises

Labor: Dockworker union takes initial step toward a strike, which shippers say would hurt a fragile U.S. economy.


Contract negotiations covering about 10,000 West Coast dockworkers grew increasingly tense Friday as the union suspended talks for nearly three weeks and, for the first time, officially broached the possibility of a strike.

Representatives of West Coast locals transferred the power to call for a strike vote to the negotiating committee--strengthening that panel's bargaining clout. The change is incremental, and union officials insist they have no plans to shut down the ports. Even so, retailers who depend on the ports to move goods were rattled.

In a statement, Joe Miniace, president of the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents major shipping lines in the negotiations, called the actions "a threat to an already fragile economy" that could endanger "the economic well-being of millions of Americans."

The parties have been negotiating for three months. They appeared to be making progress two weeks ago, when the union offered to accept new technology that it said would eliminate hundreds of marine clerk jobs. But the union rejected a counter-offer that it said would have allowed for the outsourcing of International Longshore and Warehouse Union jobs.

The PMA maintains that its offer, which includes early retirement packages, job guarantees and a 17% average wage increase over five years, is generous.

The postponement came after a weeklong union caucus by about 80 representatives of union locals, who unanimously rejected the PMA offer. Caucus members then voted to transfer the ability to call for a strike vote to the negotiating committee.

ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone said the union still views a strike as a last resort, and that the committee would have to mail ballots to all members for authorization before calling one--a process that would take weeks. "There is no crisis here," he said. Negotiators called the break so they could meet with rank-and-file members in their home ports, Stallone added.

Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn added his voice to the chorus of officials urging both sides to reach a negotiated agreement. In conversations Friday with the PMA's Miniace and ILWU President James Spinosa, Hahn said he was assured that neither side would take any actions to slow the flow of goods before talks resume in August.

The Bush administration and California state officials also have been monitoring the talks.

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