West Coast ports to remain shut until tentative bargain reached

Justin Pritchard The Associated Press
Monday September 30, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO – West Coast ports will remain shut indefinitely, the association representing shipping lines announced Sunday evening. 

The Pacific Maritime Association said it would not order any new workers to the docks until the longshoremen’s union agrees to sign and extend a lapsed contract they have been negotiating. 

The labor crisis will ripple through the U.S. economy as ports that handle about $1 billion daily worth of cargo shut down. 

“They’re just doing whatever they’re doing,” said Steve Stallone, a spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. 

Association president Joseph Miniace called the decision a “defensive shut down” that came less than 12 hours after longshoremen returned to the docks at 29 major Pacific ports as shipping lines lifted a Friday lockout imposed immediately after contract negotiations with their union fell apart. 

The association, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, accused the union of deliberately disrupting work by understaffing operations and dispatching unskilled workers. 

The association said productivity had “fallen off the cliff” Sunday, because of what some association managers said was the way the union was dispatching workers. 

“It’s like a plumber showing up to roof your house,” said Bill Niland, a manager for the association’s San Francisco area. 

“I will not pay workers to strike,” Miniace added. 

West Coast ports handled more than $300 billion in cargo over the past year. In the 36 hours the docks were closed, about 30 ships had to moor outside berths at ports in Los Angeles, Oakland and Seattle and Tacoma, Wash. 

That meant hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Pacific Rim trade wasn’t entering the U.S. distribution chain — a blow to importers who are scrambling to secure goods for the holiday season. At the same time, exporters feared a prolonged disruption would see their goods rot on the docks. 

Miniace appealed for a mediator. 

A message left Sunday evening with the U.S. Labor Department was not immediately returned. 

The union has accused the Bush administration of meddling in talks, which began in May and showed some signs of progress before deteriorating in the late summer. 

Talks finally crumbled last week over the question of how to implement new technology on the waterfront. 

Longshoremen said they can accept short-term job losses from increased efficiency, but the union wanted guarantees that positions created by computer tracking systems would be union-covered. 

Shipping lines counter that increases in trade will more than offset job losses, but the union shouldn’t have jurisdiction over every new job that new technology produces. 

The San Francisco union chapter, historically one of the most militant on the coast, told workers who normally report to the same shipping terminal each day to instead begin Sunday at the dispatch hall for random assignment. Experienced crane operators, for example, chose other jobs and left their less experienced co-workers to operate the cranes, according to Richard Mead, local union president. 

At the terminal run by Maersk, no operators took jobs on three cranes to load the last few containers on a ship that was otherwise ready to steam out. 

“They wanted us to come back like we were going to be good little puppy dogs,” Mead said. “It doesn’t work like that on the waterfront.”