West Coast ports are set to reopen tonight after a federal court Tuesday granted a temporary injunction ending the lockout that has bottled up ports from San Diego to Seattle, inflicting billions of dollars in damage on an already shaky economy.
President Bush requested the emergency order Tuesday after a White House panel informed him that "seeds of distrust" had so poisoned relations between shipping lines and dockworkers that the two sides were unlikely to reach an agreement on their own.
"The crisis in our Western ports is hurting the economy; it is hurting the security of our country, and the federal government must act," Bush said outside the West Wing of the White House. "This nation simply cannot afford to have hundreds of billons of dollars
Analysts have estimated that the 10-day lockout has cost the economy $1 billion to $2 billion a day in lost sales, wages and production. Those figures are hard to quantify. But the Justice Department on Tuesday marshaled new statistics to bolster its case, predicting that a lengthy shutdown of the ports could cost 140,000 American jobs by the end of the year.
The government likewise played the defense card given the expected conflict with Iraq and continuing concern over terrorism, contending that an extended shutdown would have a "substantial negative impact on military readiness during a time of national crisis."
The government's complaint included testimony from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who said a continued shutdown of the 29 West Coast ports would adversely affect the ability to move supplies overseas in the event of war and jeopardize the global fight against terrorism.
In San Francisco, U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who issued the order, said the government's arguments were "very compelling."
"The docks are rotting with perishables," he said.
Alsup's granting of the temporary restraining order Tuesday marks the beginning of an 80-day cooling-off period for management and the 10,500-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union to restart their stalled negotiations, as required under the provisions of the Taft-Hartley Act. Both sides are scheduled to appear in court Oct. 16, when Alsup will consider converting his temporary order into a preliminary injunction.
Bush's politically sensitive move, coming only five weeks before congressional midterm elections, makes him the first president in nearly a quarter of a century to intervene in a labor dispute using the Taft-Hartley Act. That 1947 legislation allows the president to use the power of the courts to temporarily end work stoppages that "imperil the national health and safety."
"This is great news," said Robin Lanier, director of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, which represents about 50 large retailers and manufacturers dependent on waterborne trade. "But the question now is, what are the logistics of getting the enormous backlog unstuck?"
The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, said it would call union members to report for work at 6 p.m. today.
The shipping group locked out union workers Sept. 29 after a series of disruptions that slowed the movement of cargo. Union members said delays were the result of a crush of cargo during the peak shipping season, as well as an effort by workers to observe proper safety procedures in the wake of five union worker deaths along the West Coast waterfront this year.
As the ports reopen, the prospect of continued disruptions remain. Union spokesman Steve Stallone said after the court ruling that dock employees would continue to "work safely" and follow the contract terms closely.
Stallone predicted that the Pacific Maritime Assn. probably would accuse the union of a slowdown, using productivity comparisons from months ago, that could result in court sanctions against the union. Stallone said those comparisons are unfair because the current gridlock will make it difficult to work at anything resembling a normal pace.
"They are going to be trying to financially break this union with fines and throw our leaders in jail," Stallone said. "It's going to cost us a bundle to defend ourselves."
Under the court order, ILWU members must resume work at a "normal and reasonable rate of speed."
The Pacific Maritime Assn.'s Sugerman would not speculate on what the management group would do in the event of a union slowdown.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get there," Sugerman said. But President Joseph Miniace previously said the shipping group was prepared to present productivity records in court if the work pace slows.
The court order followed a last-ditch effort by Bush administration officials to avoid using the Taft-Hartley Act by asking both sides to agree to an unconditional 30-day extension of the expired labor contract. The Pacific Maritime Assn. had said throughout the lockout that it would open the ports if the union signed such an extension, which would prevent it from staging further slowdowns.