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Logjam at Ports Continues as Sides Blame Each Other

The backup of vessels remains a concern because arrivals of ships are keeping pace with departures.

October 17, 2002|Nancy Cleeland and David Streitfeld | Times Staff Writers

Despite a crush of activity at major West Coast ports from Long Beach to Seattle, shipping lines said Wednesday that there has been little progress in breaking the logjam of ships that built up during a 10-day employer lockout.

Shipping companies and unionized dockworkers continued to blame each other as the number of vessels waiting outside the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach held steady, at 118 late Wednesday.

"We had hoped by now that things would start on a downward trend," said Capt. Dick McKenna, deputy executive director of the Marine Exchange, which monitors ship activity at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. "We're bailing as fast as we can, but the level's not going down. It is a bit of a concern for us."

In San Francisco, meanwhile, a federal judge officially extended the injunction that forced ports to reopen Oct. 9 for 80 days under the rarely used Taft-Hartley Act. U.S. District Judge William Alsup pointedly noted that the injunction not only prohibits employers from closing the ports, it also bans workers from staging slowdowns.

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, claims the union has been deliberately slowing the work pace by failing to dispatch sufficient numbers of skilled workers to job sites.

But the International Longshore and Warehouse Union claims shipping companies and terminal operators have been sabotaging efforts to clear the ports by ordering insufficient labor. They also said logistical problems, such as a shortage of truck chassis to carry containers, make the dig-out difficult.

When terminals first reopened, shipping experts estimated it would take four to eight weeks to get the ports and the transpacific shipping pipeline back to normal. However, loaded ships are coming in at the same rate that others are leaving.

"The line of vessels remains about as long now as it was before," said PMA spokesman John Pachtner, as he left the hearing in San Francisco. "We aren't making significant progress in unclogging the cargo pipeline."

Pachtner hinted that the association may present evidence to the U.S. attorney that the union is intentionally slowing the pace of work.

He said that productivity was down from normal levels by 10% to 25%, and that the PMA is looking at payroll records, crane movements and other data to determine the cause.

But union attorney Richard Zuckerman, at the same hearing, said, "There is no evidence at this point that there's any noncompliance [with the injunction]. If they had evidence, they certainly would have brought it to the court's attention."

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