As ships idle, longshoremen and shippers exchange threats

Justin Pritchard The Associated Press
Tuesday October 01, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — Cargo ships laden with Christmas presents lay at anchor offshore, waiting to be unloaded, and trucks with fresh produce lined up outside West Coast ports Monday after dockworkers were locked out in a dispute that could cost the U.S. economy $1 billion a day. 

West Coast shipping lines said they will keep the ports closed until the longshoremen agree to extend their expired contract. But the 10,500-member dockworkers union said it will not budge until the lockout ends. 

With both sides hardening their positions Monday, it appeared only some kind of face-saving outside intervention would let cargo flow across the waterfront again. 

“If there was ever any doubt that mediation is necessary, that question has now been answered by the events of the last week,” said Tom Edwards, a spokesman for the shipping lines. 

The Bush administration said that it is concerned about the effect on the struggling U.S. economy but that it has no immediate plans to break the impasse by declaring a national emergency. 

The head federal mediator has invited both sides to Washington, D.C., for a Thursday session. Shipping lines have accepted. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union said it was leaning against such a move. 

The bulk of the nation’s imports from China and Japan come through the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the nation’s busiest. The labor crisis comes as importers scramble to bring in merchandise for the Christmas shopping season. 

Representatives of the shipping lines and dockworkers planned to meet Monday afternoon. 

A frail labor peace between the shipping lines and the longshoremen collapsed Sunday when the dockworkers were ordered off their jobs indefinitely at all 29 of the nation’s major West Coast ports. 

The two sides are at odds over pensions and other benefits, as well as cargo-handling technology that the union fears would wipe out jobs. 

West Coast ports handled more than $300 billion in cargo over the past year. 

Over the weekend, about 30 ships waiting to be unloaded dropped anchor outside the ports of Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., according to the Pacific Maritime Association said. Seventy other vessels already in port waited to loaded or unloaded. 

Economists warned that a drawn-out work stoppage will ripple through the U.S. economy. Stores will not have the merchandise they need. Produce could rot on the docks. Assembly lines may come to a halt for lack of parts. 

Hawaii relies on shipping for about 90 percent of its goods. 

For truckers such as Salvador Nunez, the effect was more immediate. He drove to the Port of Los Angeles from a small town near the Mexican border with a load of alfalfa sprouts and hay. Unable to unload, he waited several hours before turning around for the six-hour ride home. 

Nunez was out $125 in transportation costs and could not collect his usual $400 for the load. If the work stoppage goes on for more than a week, “it will be too long,” said Nunez, who supports a wife and two children. “I’ll be out of money.” 

Pacific Maritime Association president Joseph Miniace, representing shipping lines and sea terminal operators, ordered the lockout Sunday and accused the union of disrupting work by understaffing operations and dispatching workers not skilled for specific jobs. The union said it was strictly following safety codes. 

Jim Spinosa, president and chief negotiator for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, responded: “The ILWU will not be intimidated. We will not extend the contract.” 

The last time an economic emergency was declared and the U.S. government intervened in a work stoppage under the Taft-Hartley Act was 1978, when President Carter unsuccessfully tried to end a national coal strike. No such action is planned yet by the Bush administration. 

“If it goes on for even a short period of time, it’s a problem for the economy,” White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. “We’re monitoring it closely.” 

The Bush administration is working to get both sides to the bargaining table with federal mediators. But Spinosa said: “We don’t need outside people to come in.” 

Under the last contract, a full-time longshoreman makes an average of $80,000 a year, while the most experienced foremen average $167,000. 

The talks began deteriorating during the summer, and over Labor Day weekend the union stopped approving rolling extensions of the contract, which officially ended July 1.