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West Coast Ports Closed

Commerce: Longshore union rejects allegation that slowdown triggered lockout. Labor dispute could drain billions from the economy.


West Coast cargo ports were shut down indefinitely Sunday night after a chaotic day on the waterfront that dashed hopes for a truce between dockworkers and shipping lines, now in their fifth month of troubled contract talks.

Hundreds of cargo-laden ships from San Diego to Seattle were stranded when the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents international shipping lines and U.S.-based terminal operators, locked out union workers at the start of the 6 p.m. shift.

Leaders of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union insisted they had done nothing to provoke the action. But the Pacific Maritime Assn. cited dozens of examples of what it said were deliberate acts by the union to slow or halt the flow of cargo. Among them were failures to provide crane operators and the misplacing of cargo containers in terminal yards.

Association officials said it would cost more to run the ports at diminished productivity--with union members paid for doing little or no work--than it would to shut them down.

"I will not pay workers to strike," said Joseph Miniace, president of the Pacific Maritime Assn.

Miniace said the lockout would continue until the union signs a new contract or agrees to extend its expired contract. Under contract, any slowdown is subject to arbitration, which could lead to penalties for the union.

In the event of a protracted shutdown, the Bush administration has indicated that it would consider invoking the Taft-Hartley Act, which would reopen the ports for an 80-day cooling-off period.

The 29 ports handle about half of the nation's ocean-going cargo, including imports of cars, electronics, garments, housewares and sporting goods.

Citing potential damage to the national economy, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service late Sunday called for both sides to immediately "stand down their economic pressures" and resume normal work schedules.

Director Peter J. Hurtgen urged negotiators for the union and the shipping association to meet in his office in Washington, D.C., on Thursday morning.

The Pacific Maritime Assn. said it would accept the offer of mediation. A union spokesman did not return calls seeking comment, but the union has refused similar offers in recent weeks, saying it prefers to deal directly with the shipping lines.

Negotiations have bogged down over the association's desire to introduce new technology such as scanners, sensors and remote cameras, which will cost union jobs. In exchange, the union wants to expand its jurisdiction, set minimum staffing levels, and control the flow of all information through the terminals.

After a week of sporadic slowdowns, the Pacific Maritime Assn. on Friday night locked workers out for a 36-hour cooling-off period. But when the terminals reopened Sunday morning, the association alleged that slowdowns continued.

When the new lockout was called Sunday night, vessels were already backed up in harbors and being forced to anchor outside the breakwaters. Many more ships were due to arrive today, including 23 at Los Angeles-Long Beach.

"This is bad. Very bad," said Robin Lanier, executive director of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, which represents retailers and manufacturers that use the ports. "We've already got a backed-up situation, and it's going to get progressively worse. And everybody's terrified of what this does to the stock market tomorrow."

Union members were incensed by the Pacific Maritime Assn.'s decision for another lockout and quickly set up picket lines at terminals in Los Angeles and Long Beach. "They want to play this game? They can go ahead and play it," said Ramon Ponce de Leon Jr., president of the union's Local 13 in Los Angeles.

Ponce de Leon said he had been on the docks all day Sunday, trying to ensure that jobs were filled. "There is no slowdown," he said.

He and other union leaders accused the Pacific Maritime Assn. of instigating a crisis in the hope that it would lead to federal intervention, which they say would favor the industry.

The mood at Local 13 headquarters was grim as union members gathered for picket duty. "We're going to have men at the gates," Ponce de Leon said. "It's going to get ugly."

At a rally in front of the Longshore Memorial Hall adjacent to Los Angeles port terminals, ILWU President James Spinosa fired up the crowd of about 200, telling dockworkers that the union would not be intimidated.

"We have been a responsible union," Spinosa said. "They have been outsourcing in many directions the work that is rightfully ours. We embrace technology changes, but let's do it together."

"The union built this waterfront over the past 50 years," added Spinosa, who was joined at the rally by Miguel Contreras, chief of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, and other labor leaders.

An extended shutdown of the West Coast ports would be economically devastating, according to a study conducted for the Pacific Maritime Assn. by the Martin Associates consulting firm in Lancaster, Pa.

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