Work slowdown at Pacific ports called unlikely

By Justin Pritchard, The Associated Press
Thursday July 04, 2002

Employers suspicious that dock workers might  

intentionally slow down 


SAN FRANCISCO — Work continues at the nation’s 29 major Pacific ports, but billions of dollars in trade could grind to a halt if shipping lines conclude the dock workers they employ are staging a deliberate work slowdown. 

Both sides are negotiating a new contract, and the longshoremen’s union has promised not to strike. The shipping lines have said they’ll only lock out the 10,500 workers who staff docks at the ports if they show up but don’t do their jobs as efficiently as normal. 

The contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association expired Monday, though both sides approved a 24-hour extension both Monday and Tuesday. The deal covers ports from San Diego to Seattle that last year handled $260 billion in cargo, according to the association. 

The union hasn’t circulated word of a slowdown, and an association spokesman said Tuesday he didn’t expect any such labor disruption as long as the two sides kept talking. But the Labor Department was watching the situation closely. 

“Slowdowns severely disrupt the transportation system,” said Joseph Miniace, president and chief executive officer of the maritime association. “If the union strikes with pay by staging slowdowns at the terminals, the PMA will be forced to consider a defensive shutdown.” 

Shipping lines say longshoremen staged slowdowns just after the last two contracts expired — in 1996 and 1999 — while both sides remained at the table, cutting productivity in half at some port terminals. 

The union denies that charge. 

“They worked the way they were supposed to work,” said union spokesman Steve Stallone. “They just didn’t bust their butts overtime. And that is what the PMA described as a slowdown.” 

This time is different, however, because both sides appear committed to renewing the contract every 24 hours. 

“As long as contract remains in place, there won’t be an effort to organize a slowdown,” said Robin Lanier of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, which represents shippers and transportation providers. “Even though people are popping Pepto-Bismol by the gallon, the day-to-day extension actually is viewed as a positive development.” 

An unexpected slowdown could hurt businesses as much as a strike or lockout. Companies tend to warehouse as few supplies as possible, so any interruption in the flow of goods could be costly. 

“You save on inventory costs, but if anything interrupts the supply line, bingo, your revenue is cut and the interest on your line of credit keeps mounting,” said Ernest Howard, chairman of the California Society of CPAs. 

Studies commissioned by the maritime association have put the cost to the national economy of a 20-day port shut down at $48.6 billion. 

With so much at stake, the White House has said it’s watching, and federal lawmakers have petitioned both sides to keep the ports open. 

Even were one side to quit negotiations, under federal law President Bush can block a strike and impose an 80-day cooling-off period. 

Negotiations have stalled over benefits and how to bring new cargo-handling technology to the ports, according to both sides. 

Shipping lines say they need to automate the ports to compete more efficiently in the global economy. 

Union leaders say they’re not against modernization — as long as new technology doesn’t mean jobs are shifted outside the union. 

West Coast docks saw strikes in 1934, 1936-37, 1948 and 1971. The two sides are negotiating in San Francisco, where both are based.