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VENTURA COUNTY

Workers Picket at Port of Hueneme

October 02, 2002|GREGORY W. GRIGGS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seeking public support, dozens of dockworkers staged informational pickets Tuesday at the Port of Hueneme as part of a West Coast labor dispute that has halted cargo activity from San Diego to Seattle.

For a second day, two vessels were idled at the port--one carrying a load of Del Monte bananas from Ecuador, another containing liquid fertilizer--as shippers and terminal operators continued their lockout of members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Two more ships have sat anchored offshore since Monday and another is scheduled to arrive along the coastline today.

About 40 to 50 union members plan to continue around-the-clock picketing at the port's main entrance and exits and at the Oxnard Harbor District offices as long as needed, said Janet Ritza, secretary-treasurer of the union's Local 46, which represents the area's dockworkers.

Union representatives, angered by the presence of armed security guards, walked out of a meeting with the Pacific Maritime Assn. on Tuesday in San Francisco.

Negotiations have stalled over the Pacific Maritime Assn.'s desire to introduce technology to speed up cargo handling, a move that would eliminate hundreds of union jobs. The union wants minimum staffing levels, jurisdiction over all technology-related jobs and control over information once it enters the ports.

Saying union members, especially at ports in Long Beach and Los Angeles, staged a work slowdown and other disruptions, employers contend workers would be shut out until they agree to sign a new contract or extend one that expired June 1.

"In the meantime, the food is spoiling in the ships and everything is waiting to be delivered," Ritza said. Locally, union members earn an average of $59,000 a year, although some, such as foremen, make more than $100,000, according to union officials.

While a prolonged cargo stoppage could have devastating effects, Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner Earl McPhail said exports of local oranges and lemons are at a seasonal lull.

The picking of lemons and Valencia oranges is winding down, and it will be another few weeks before navel oranges are harvested.

"For us, it couldn't have happened at a better time, but it's definitely going to impact us," McPhail said. "There's probably fruit in cold storage [at the port] that's ready to go....We're probably going to have to reinspect to make sure it's OK to be sent out."

With shipping times of six or seven days to Pacific Rim locales, including Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, McPhail said citrus may be converted to juice or thrown away, depending on how long it is stuck at the port.

Michael Wootton, vice president of corporate relations for Sunkist Growers, said that if the shutdown continues, the growers' cooperative probably will retrieve its fruit from refrigerated warehouses at the port and divert it to other U.S. markets until it can resume exports.

"We're hopeful this is not going to be a long, protracted shutdown," Wootton said. Sunkist exports an average of 5.5 million cartons of oranges, lemons and grapefruit, valued at $84.5 million, out of the port annually.

It's too early to accurately assess what idling the port will mean to the Ventura County economy, said Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast in Santa Barbara. The port handles about $1 billion in cargo annually, but how much of that business will be postponed or lost forever is unknown.

"I'd say that the impact is relatively negligible for now," Schniepp said. "Sure, it'll be a few hundred thousand dollars, but that's such a small amount in the big picture. But if this goes on for two or three weeks, things get to be a lot more dicey. You might have certain contracts canceled, and there are perishable cargoes that will be ruined."

Will Berg, marketing director for the port, said the Tricolor, a car carrier, has been stuck offshore since Monday with 1,459 vehicles destined for U.S. dealerships. An additional 1,500 cars are expected to be held offshore today when the Barcelona drops anchor.

As the port landlord, the Oxnard Harbor District is not a direct party to the negotiations, but its leases are based, in part, on collecting fees as ships come to port and when cargo moves across the wharves. Berg said the harbor district estimates it will lose about $20,000 in such fees daily during the lockout.

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