Ports head toward stoppage

Simon Avery The Associated Press
Thursday September 19, 2002

LOS ANGELES — West Coast ports headed toward the brink of a major labor stoppage Wednesday as negotiators for shippers and terminal operators accused dockworkers of staging a work slowdown and threatened to retaliate by locking out workers at all 29 ports. 

The slowdowns hit at the Ports of Long Beach and Oakland, causing dozens of union and casual workers to be sent home without pay, said Joseph Miniace, president and chief executive of the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents 87 shipping and stevedore companies. 

The actions of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents about 10,500 port workers, raise the possibility of “economic disaster,” the PMA said. 

The West Coast ports handle more than $300 billion worth of goods a year, which comprise more than 7 percent of the gross national product. 

ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone denied the union had initiated any slowdown. He said the situation in Long Beach was the result of excess cargo and too few trained crane operators. 

In Oakland, workers were provoked to walk off the job by a last-minute change to their lunch schedule, which prohibited them from attending a scheduled demonstration, Stallone said. 

The ILWU’s port workers have been working without a contract since Sept. 1. Their labor agreement expired July 1, but both sides were agreeing to 24-hour extensions until talks temporarily derailed this month. 

The first signs of slowdown began in Long Beach briefly Monday night and resumed Tuesday night and Wednesday, Miniace said. 

The union was not dispatching drivers to handle heavy equipment, making it impossible to service a ship and adjacent rail yard at the Stevedoring Services of America terminal, Miniace said. 

In Oakland, about 20 truck drivers at the Maersk/Sealand terminal reported ill and went home after lunch, Miniace said. 

“The union is playing with fire and appears to be willing to jeopardize America’s economic interests by initiating hit and run tactics against members of the PMA,” Miniace said. 

Since contract negotiations with the dockworkers began in May, the PMA has warned that it could answer any slowdown with a lockout. 

Miniace said the PMA was united in its determination not to tolerate a work slowdown, but was still developing its response and did not expect to take action until after a PMA board meeting Thursday morning. 

“Clearly a lockout is an option and there are various variations on that theme,” he said. 

The ILWU said problems were limited to one ship in one terminal at one port.