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Delays at Ports Denied by Union

ILWU says it is not responsible for the slow pace in eliminating the backlog of cargo aboard ships backed up at ports on the West Coast.

October 30, 2002|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

In a testy six-page response to allegations that it orchestrated slowdowns at West Coast ports, the longshore union Tuesday repeatedly accused the Justice Department of siding with the shipping industry in a labor dispute that continues to stall cargo shipments.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union denied violating the Oct. 8 federal injunction that reopened port terminals after a 10-day employer lockout. The injunction called on union members to work at a "normal and reasonable speed."

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents the shipping lines and terminal operators, filed documents with the Justice Department more than a week ago claiming the union defied the court order by engaging in systematic slowdowns, causing productivity to drop by as much as 37%.

If federal attorneys deem the complaint valid and take the matter back to court, the union could be held in contempt and fined. The court also could hand down specific orders addressing industry complaints, such as the allegation that key workers are arriving at jobs 90 minutes late.

In the letter, union attorney Richard Zuckerman said the industry's claims of a slowdown were baseless. He said any declines in productivity could be attributed to congestion on the docks, shortages of equipment and labor, and mismanagement by terminal operators.

He also said union officials have tried to resolve logistics problems by dealing directly with the PMA, but said they have been rebuffed. "PMA has steadfastly refused to cooperate with these initiatives, preferring to adopt a confrontational posture that appears to be aimed only at framing the Union to take the blame for the continuing effects of the lockout," he wrote.

The letter was the union's second in a week to the department, which asked it to respond to the PMA allegations of a slowdown. Initially, the union complained that it never saw the allegations and then contended that the matter should be handled through an internal grievance process rather than the courts.

Federal attorneys quickly rebuked the union, saying the court has clear authority to consider work pace and demanding documentation showing the union followed the injunction by noon Tuesday.

"We take seriously any allegations that those ports are not operating at an appropriate level of productivity," wrote Deputy Assistant Atty. Gen. Shannen W. Coffin. "The United States will not tolerate interference with the court's injunction in this matter."

Citing that letter, the union's response on Tuesday complained at least four times of federal bias toward the shipping lines. "We must object at the outset to the tone of your letter which in our view demonstrates a lack of impartiality in this matter," Zuckerman wrote.

Later in the same letter, he chided federal attorneys for demanding appropriate productivity: "We strenuously object that your letter, by adopting much of PMA's own jargon, reveals a bias that has no place in these or any other proceedings."

Zuckerman dismissed most of the evidence cited by the shipping group in claiming a slowdown and said some issues, such as tardiness, have been the object of complaints for years and are "nothing new." He also suggested the PMA itself violated the court order "through its refusal to work with the Union to jointly address the tremendous logistical problems caused by the lockout."

PMA spokesman Steve Sugerman countered that the PMA has met with local union steering committees and had "daily phone calls and discussions" with union leaders to clear the backlog of containers and vessels.

Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller said federal attorneys are studying documents from the union and PMA to determine whether to seek more specific orders or penalties from the court. "We will review the materials provided by both sides in a fair and evenhanded manner with the goal of ensuring compliance with the court's injunction," he said.

Meanwhile, the backlog of ships at the port complex of Los Angeles-Long Beach is slowly beginning to clear, according to Dick McKenna of the Marine Exchange, which monitors ship movements in the area. As of Tuesday afternoon, 93 vessels were waiting to unload containers, down from a high of 120 during the lockout, McKenna said.

He added that many shipping lines were diverting vessels to other, less congested ports, such as Oakland, or were holding them at home ports until the backlog cleared. A federal mediator continued to lead negotiations between the union and shipping group at a San Francisco hotel. The talks began in mid-May, but bogged down on the introduction of labor-saving technology. The PMA ordered the lockout of union workers last month in response to what it said were orchestrated slowdowns by ILWU members.

Union negotiators say they are willing to accept new technology, such as scanners and remote cameras, that will eliminate hundreds of clerical jobs. But in return they want to represent some workers, including vessel planners, who are not now unionized. The employers have balked at expanding the union's jurisdiction.

In a sign of organized labor's interest in the high-stakes negotiations, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka began sitting in on the talks late last week. Spokeswoman Denise Mitchell said his presence was meant to "add accountability to the process."

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