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Business Leaders, Legislators Call for Reopening of Harbors

Labor: Federal mediator tries to break stalemate in contract talks, but little progress reported.

October 05, 2002|NANCY CLEELAND, RICHARD SIMON and DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The economic impact of the West Coast port shutdown widened Friday, as U.S. factories braced for more closures and ships loaded with thousands of containers sought any working harbor to unload cargo.

A federal mediator shuttled between representatives of dockworkers and management at a San Francisco hotel, hoping to break the stalemate in contract talks. Negotiators were expected to meet late into the night Friday and through the weekend, but said progress had been very slow.

A growing chorus of legislators and business groups urged both sides to call a truce and reopen the ports during negotiations. Pressure also increased on President Bush to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act, which would force the ports open for an 80-day cooling-off period.

The 29 commercial ports from San Diego to Seattle were closed indefinitely Sunday after employers said a series of union slowdowns had cut productivity by more than half.

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, said it was more cost-effective to cease all operations than to run the ports at diminished capacity.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 10,500 dockworkers on the West Coast, said it was eager to return to work, but has refused to extend its expired contract, which would prohibit the union from staging further slowdowns.

The Pacific Maritime Assn. said it must have a new contract or an extension of the old contract before it will reopen the ports.

"I seriously doubt a contract extension will be signed, but that's not needed to get the ports moving again," union spokesman Steve Stallone said. "All they need to do is open the gates."

Pacific Maritime Assn. spokesman Steve Sugerman responded: "The last time we opened the gates without a contract, we had a 54% reduction in productivity coast-wide. All the union needs to do is make one stroke of a pen on a contract and the gates open."

The two sides have been in contract negotiations for nearly five months but have deadlocked on the introduction of labor-saving technology.

Employers on Friday agreed to allow ships bound for Alaska to be loaded with critically needed supplies. The union called on the association to make the same exception for Hawaii-bound cargo. Sugerman said the association was seriously considering granting that request.

Also on Friday, representatives of the National Assn. of Manufacturers met with Bush economic advisor Lawrence Lindsay to lobby for federal intervention.

"We wanted to reinforce the message that the impact is already severe, and it's going to get worse very quickly," said William Primosch, director of international business policy for the group.

The association polled its 1,400 members on the shutdown's impact Friday morning, and had already heard from nearly 200 by the end of the day. Of those, 7% said they have already begun shutting down operations. Another 27% said they planned to do so if the dispute is not resolved next week, and another 28% said they would within three weeks, Primosch said.

He said retailers and manufacturers hoped Democratic legislators could convince the longshore union to sign an extension of the contract, which he said would be preferable to forcing a reopening through Taft-Hartley.

In order to use the act, Bush would first have to appoint a board of inquiry to determine whether the closing of the ports is causing serious harm to the nation's economy. He could then seek an injunction forcing the ports to reopen.

The act was last invoked, unsuccessfully, by President Carter in an attempt to end a strike by coal miners. In 1971, Taft-Hartley was used to force West Coast longshore workers to temporarily end a three-month strike. But the strike resumed when the 80-day cooling-off period ended.

The AFL-CIO has lobbied strongly against using Taft-Hartley, arguing that both parties should be left solve their differences at the bargaining table.

Business groups said the economic toll would grow exponentially if the ports did not reopen by Monday.

"It is impossible to express the angst over this issue," said Robin Lanier, director of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, which represents retailers and manufacturers who use the ports.

"And people are ever more frustrated with the White House. We need to see some leadership on this issue."

A White House spokeswoman said late Friday that the administration is continuing to monitor the lockout, but planned no immediate action.

At least 94 container vessels waited to be unloaded at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the world's third-largest harbor complex, according to the Marine Exchange. About 40 of the ships were berthed in the ports, with the remainder anchored in outlying waters. More than 20 cargo ships have been diverted from the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex since the lockout began Sunday, including an Evergreen container ship that was sent to Panama to be unloaded.

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