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Local Ports Are Back to Normal --for Now

Labor: Lockout threat fades as cargo flows at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach. But the dockworkers union says it's still short-handed.

September 21, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN and JERRY HIRSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Cargo moved smoothly through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Friday, one day after a dockworker lockout was narrowly averted.

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents West Coast shipping lines and terminal operators, called off a threatened lockout late Thursday after the International Longshore and Warehouse Union sent full crews to unload a ship at the Stevedoring Services of America terminal.

On Friday, union workers continued to report for work, and there were no unusual backups of big rigs on the roads leading to the port complex's terminals. While some labor slots were unfilled, PMA spokesman Jason Greenwald said, the overall labor situation "is good news."

Meanwhile, the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board claiming the threatened lockout was unlawful and was intended to extract economic concessions. Stevedoring Services had filed a complaint against the union with the same board Monday, claiming the union withheld labor from its terminal to split association members and gain leverage in contract talks.

The union has blamed Stevedoring Services for holding up a contract agreement by a taking hard-line stance on union jurisdiction.

Talks, which began four months ago, continued Friday, with negotiators discussing the key issue: the companies' desire to introduce technology that could threaten union jobs.

Discussions were set to continue today.

On Thursday, Federal Mediation and Conciliation Director Peter J. Hurten offered his services, which was accepted by the PMA but declined by the union.

The contract being negotiated covers 10,500 dockworkers from San Diego to Seattle. One UC Berkeley study estimated that a coast-wide shutdown would cost the U.S. economy $1 billion a day.

ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone said Friday that the union is still short-handed and struggling to cope with the volume of cargo at the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex, which has set records over the last three months. The boom is the result of growing transpacific trade and importers stocking up for the holiday season.

"There's lots of work and not enough people to meet the demand," Stallone said. "We are about 30 skilled crane-trained people short port-wide."

At the union dispatch hall in Wilmington early Friday, dockworkers stood in long lines in front of the counters where supervisors handed out work assignments. Giant video screens indicated where union members could find work in the port complex.

Workers denied there was any orchestrated attempt to idle Stevedoring Services or other terminal operators.

"You see there is no slowdown; we are all going to work," said one longshoreman, who declined to give his name because of a union edict barring members from speaking to reporters.

Nonetheless, workers said they were angry at the shipping lines for alleging a work slowdown and threatening a lockout.

"We had 180 orders for crane operators this morning; that's a record-setting day," said Ramon Ponce de Leon Jr., president of ILWU Local 13.

By 7:15 a.m., the union had filled 140 of the orders but had run out of crane operators, a specialized job within the industry. It filled the remainder gradually over the morning as people came off other jobs or were contacted at home.

"There is so much work right now that we don't have all the manpower we need," Ponce de Leon said.

"We did whatever we could to get those jobs filled."

PMA spokesman Steve Sugerman said that as long as crews were dispatched equally among terminal operators, the association would not deem the shortage to be an orchestrated job action.

However, he said the PMA would consider a lockout again if it saw evidence of a slowdown.

The port's leading imports include Asia-produced clothing, toys, shoes, handbags and consumer electronics.

Staff writer Nancy Cleeland contributed to this report.

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