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Both Sides Keeping Tabs on Port Work

Dispute between union, shipping lines over the pace of handling cargo may end up in court.

October 15, 2002|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

Tensions escalated Monday over the pace of work on West Coast docks, with both the longshore union and shipping lines carefully documenting the loading and unloading of cargo containers.

The issue may soon end up before a federal judge.

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which is representing the cargo carriers, said orchestrated union slowdowns have cut production by 25% at commercial ports from San Diego to Seattle. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union blamed the productivity drop on congestion and shortages of equipment after the 10-day lockout by the maritime association.

The shipping group may present what it describes as ample evidence of a slowdown to the U.S. attorney's office, said PMA spokesman Steve Sugerman. "That decision has not been made," he said. "We are trying to work with the union and having a very hard time getting their cooperation."

If the U.S. attorney agrees there is evidence of a slowdown, it could ask U.S. District Judge William Alsup for sanctions, including fines or jail sentences, against the union and its leaders.

Alsup ordered an end to the lockout last week after President Bush sought an injunction under the rarely used Taft-Hartley Act. In granting the injunction, Alsup triggered an 80-day cooling-off period that forced both sides to resume operations. The order also requires the union to work at a "normal and reasonable" pace.

The union and employers group have been in contentious contract talks for five months, unable to agree on how to introduce job-cutting technology at the terminals.

Employers alleged the union staged a slowdown last month to gain leverage in the talks. In response, the shipping group locked out the workers for 10 days ending Oct. 9.

With docks idled, more than 200 giant container vessels stacked up along the coast, creating a backlog of cargo that could take weeks to clear.

As a result, the court may find it difficult to decide what is "normal."

For instance, trucks are arriving at terminal gates with containers that should have shipped out weeks ago on vessels that are long gone. Marine clerks must find space on other vessels to take them, a process that can take several hours a truckload, said union spokesman Steve Stallone.

Such complications are the rule these days, Stallone said. A shortage of empty containers means trucks are unable to take the empties to exporters, which must load the containers to ship their goods. A shortage of truck trailers means the containers can't be moved.

To bolster its argument, the union, backed by the national AFL-CIO, has asked federal and state safety inspectors to watch workers perform at terminals. So far, only California's health and safety program, Cal/OSHA, has sent extra inspectors, the union and shipping group said. State and federal offices were closed Monday.

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