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Workers Locked Out at Ports on West Coast

September 28, 2002|MARLA DICKERSON, LOUIS SAHAGUN and EVELYN IRITANI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Cargo operations at seaports from San Diego to Seattle ground to a halt Friday when terminal operators locked out unionized dockworkers in a showdown that threatens to paralyze the nation's leading gateway for waterborne trade.

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, called for a "defensive shutdown" of the West Coast's 29 ports from 6 p.m. Friday to 8 a.m. Sunday in response to alleged union slowdowns that have disrupted movement of cargo intermittently during the last two weeks.

About $300 billion in cars, clothing, electronics and other goods annually move through West Coast ports. By one estimate, a protracted shutdown--whether by lockout or strike--could cost the U.S. economy $1 billion a day.

A top federal labor negotiator headed to San Francisco, headquarters of both the PMA and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, late Friday afternoon, seeking to defuse the escalating tension.

The Bush administration was closely monitoring the situation and remained "hopeful the two parties will come back to the table and continue negotiating in good faith," said Sue Hensley, a spokeswoman for the Labor Department.

The PMA alleges that the ILWU is using work actions to inflict economic pain on the shipping companies to gain leverage in contract negotiations, which broke down this week.

The management group said it would reopen the ports if the union agreed to resume moving cargo normally while both sides tried to get back to the bargaining table.

"We will not tolerate the union's calculated work actions, and have exhausted every option to keep peace on the waterfront," PMA President Joseph Miniace said in a statement. "... They have engaged in a widespread job action that has brought the West Coast waterfront to its knees."

The ILWU, which represents 10,500 dockworkers up and down the West Coast, called the PMA's lockout "a tirade" born of frustration over stalled contract negotiations, which have produced little in four rancorous months.

The biggest hurdle is the PMA's desire to implement labor-saving technology at the ports, which could cost union jobs.

The ILWU said snarled container traffic at major ports is not a union slowdown, but rather the result of heavy volume that has dockworkers scrambling to keep up in the midst of the peak shipping season for the upcoming holidays.

Although the management group has designated the lockout a "cooling-off" period, Friday's action heightened concerns that it could provoke the union into a strike. ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone said the union is not considering a strike now. He said dockworkers would return when the PMA reopens the ports.

"The ball is in their court," Stallone said. "We are ready to work."

Although record levels of cargo are moving through West Coast ports, industry experts say, shipping lines and terminal operators have been struggling financially because of excess capacity that has forced the companies to lower their rates.

Average union wages last year, including overtime and premiums, were $80,000 for longshore workers and $158,000 for foremen, according to the PMA.

"We have no choice but to implement this defensive lockout," said Chuck Raymond, president of CSX Lines, a major shipping company. Even a short lockout will be expensive, Raymond said, costing $800,000 a day in lost operating revenue.

The PMA said the union's latest work slowdowns, which began Thursday night and escalated Friday, affected every major West Coast port.

Although the union denied a slowdown, the employers group cited a host of examples. At a terminal in Oakland, the PMA alleged that a crane operator who normally handles 30 containers an hour moved just three an hour Friday.

In the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, which handles 60% of cargo on the West Coast, the PMA said union workers refused to work extended shifts.

At the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the world's third-busiest port complex, port officials and the U.S. Coast Guard were preparing a holding area to anchor ships unable to unload their cargo.

Capt. Richard McKenna, a spokesman for the Marine Exchange, which is responsible for managing vessel traffic at the port complex, said about 30 ships were due to arrive by Sunday morning. The ships will be asked to anchor in rows on a first-come, first-served basis.

A similar situation arose after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when 29 cargo ships were forced to anchor offshore for a few days.

"There is a certain level of excitement about the whole thing, but we feel we can handle it," McKenna said.

At the Port of Los Angeles' new Maersk terminal at Pier 400, there was a growing line of frustrated drivers waiting to pick up and unload their cargo Friday afternoon.

Many are independents who own their own rigs and are responsible for paying for fuel and maintenance. They work on commission, with short-haul drivers making about $150 a day for two or three shipments between Los Angeles-area rail yards and the harbor.

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