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U.S. Should Step In at Ports

October 08, 2002

At $1 billion or more a day, the cost of the West Coast port stalemate is far too damaging to the nation's economy, the wave of economic pain rolling toward the country's trading partners far too ominous for Washington to let it continue. The shippers and longshore workers can reach a speedy agreement or President Bush should force them to behave responsibly.

The increasingly costly disruption isn't simply about 10,500 well-paid longshore workers and the few companies that employ them. It's also about Fresno-area farmers whose crops are rotting, Fremont auto workers who are idle because imported parts are bobbing offshore in a flotilla of container ships and the independent truckers who risk losing their rigs because there's no cargo.

The Bush administration has signaled its intention to invoke--as early as today--the rarely used Taft-Hartley Act, which would reopen the 29 ports between Mexico and Canada by requiring a return to work and an 80-day cooling-off period. Ultimately, though, federal involvement won't ease tensions between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shippers and terminal operators. That will occur only when both sides bridge their relatively narrow contract disagreements over such matters as who will control the new clerical and computer-oriented jobs created by automation.

Confrontations between the union and the shipping-line owners date to the days when dockworkers used their collective muscle to hoist cargo from ship holds. But the two parties also know how to get along--the West Coast was strike-free from 1948 to 1971, the last time a labor dispute closed the ports.

Longshore workers and the owners association forged solutions to hard-edged disagreements prompted by the introduction of massive cranes and container ships. Those negotiations should form the foundation needed to position ports for the inevitable introduction of electronic technology already used in foreign ports.

The last time a labor dispute shut down West Coast shipping the economic effect was relatively minor. But West Coast ports now are crucial players in a global economy where "just in time" is the order of the day. Labor and management have legitimate concerns that they're entitled to settle. But for them to remain entangled like stubborn, self-absorbed wrestlers while the economy sinks is more than the nation should have to witness, more than the Bush administration should tolerate another day.

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