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No Work Slowdowns Yet at Ports

Labor: A breakdown in contract talks between dockworkers union and employers over the weekend paves the way for possible job action.


Cargo moved normally through West Coast ports Tuesday after a tense Labor Day weekend during which contract talks between dockworkers and shipping lines broke down.

Accusing negotiators for the shipping companies of "sabotaging the process," the International Longshore and Warehouse Union allowed the labor contract covering 10,500 members to lapse at 5 p.m. Sunday. The union had been working on day-to-day contract extensions since the original agreement expired July 1. Its decision to refuse further extensions paves the way for work slowdowns that many people had feared could begin as early as Tuesday.

Instead, dockworkers kept the goods flowing. But ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone said the union would keep its options open with regard to future job actions.

"It didn't happen today, but that doesn't mean it can't happen at some other time," Stallone said. "We haven't laid down."

A strike, if it comes to that, could be weeks away because union rules call for balloting by mail.

The ILWU has used work slowdowns in the past to win concessions from the Pacific Maritime Assn., the management group representing shipping lines and terminal operators. But PMA officials have vowed not to tolerate the tactic this time around, threatening to lock out union members in the event of a slowdown.

Although last weekend's standoff heightened concern that a major disruption is in the offing, some took Tuesday's normal work flow at the ports as a sign that more talks could follow.

"Hopefully cooler heads will prevail, and they'll get back to the bargaining table," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

"We're at a critical point ... because this is the peak shipping season when retailers are getting all their Christmas merchandise."

Jack Suite, contract administrator for the employers group, said his organization contacted union officials Tuesday morning seeking to restart the stalled talks, but so far has received no response.

"We are prepared to go back to the table as soon as the union is, and we hope that is soon," Suite said.

Union spokesman Stallone said the ILWU is ready to resume talks, "but only when the PMA is ready to bargain seriously."

Each side has accused the other of stalling, flip-flopping and bargaining in bad faith. The major obstacle remains the employer group's insistence on labor-saving technology, which the union is worried will cost jobs.

A slowdown or strike would be a huge blow to the U.S. economy. Ports from San Diego to Seattle move more than $300 billion worth of goods a year, accounting for about 7% of the nation's gross domestic product.

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