Mediator tries to reopen ports as U.S. economy suffers

By Justin Pritchard
Saturday October 05, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO – Tempers cooled a bit as the dockworkers union and shipping companies returned to negotiations under the careful watch of a federal mediator, even as the port shutdown threatened to further hamper industries across the nation. 

The standoff appeared to ease Thursday when both sides emerged from one of their sessions. 

“We’re working hard. We plan to be here for as long as it takes,” said dockworkers union president Jim Spinosa. “We’re here to get a contract, whatever it takes.” 

But in the absence of an accord, a group of manufacturers planned to meet with White House officials Friday to press for intervention, and one association of manufacturers was in constant contact with members of President Bush’s cabinet including Commerce Secretary Donald Evans. 

The Bush administration has been called on by some politicians to intervene and repoen the waterfront. The administration says it hopes the sides can settle their differences at the negotiating table. 

The stalemate caused by a bitter contract dispute has stopped all commercial shipping at 29 Pacific ports for nearly a week. 

Both sides hunkered down Thursday and prepared for more long talks to come. 

“We were told to bring our toothbrushes,” said Joseph Miniace, lead negotiator for the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines. 

The longer the association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union take to reach a settlement, the more the economic effects furrow through the wobbly U.S. economy. 

“Every hour is another hour of economic harm,” federal mediator Peter Hurtgen said before Thursday’s negotiations began at a hotel here. “I think we all feel the pressure.” 

Along the coast, 162 ships were either idle at the docks or have dropped anchor, according to the shipping association. Another 13 were due to arrive by Friday morning. 

Food is rotting in cargo holds, railroads have halted grain shipments from the Midwest and already one part-starved auto plant near San Francisco has closed since the meltdown over a contract dispute led to a port closure that began last Friday and resumed Sunday after an abbreviated reopening. 

The work stoppage is hurting companies such as Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Elope Inc., a hat wholesaler that usually does brisk business this time of year. 

“We’ve already lost the Halloween business. It’s Christmas I’m worried about now,” said company chief executive Kevin Johnson. “If this isn’t resolved in the next week, we’re dead in the water.” 

Having already hit the transportation and manufacturing sectors, the lockdown is now causing increased concern in the U.S. agriculture industry, as evidenced Thursday by a sharp drop in wheat futures on the Chicago Board of Trade. 

The economic impact of the work stoppage was accelerating and could be costing the U.S. economy $2 billion a day, said Robert Parry, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. 

Pressure continues to mount on President Bush to intervene under the Taft-Hartley Act. Under the act. A president can block a strike or lockout for 80 days if the dispute will “imperil the national health or safety.” First, though, an inquiry board would investigate the issue, which could take several days. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is among the lawmakers who have appealed for Bush to order the ports reopened under those powers. 

The last time the government intervened in a work stoppage under Taft-Hartley was 1978, when President Carter unsuccessfully tried to end a national coal strike. 

Meanwhile, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka urged Bush not to use Taft-Hartley. Over the summer, unions charged the White House with meddling in the talks, and the White House has since meticulously avoided the appearance of getting involved. 

Some business officials are concerned over the effect of a protracted ports shutdown. 

“I’m banking on the president stepping in to force the two sides to go back to work,” said Dennis Sheldon, senior vice president of Los Angeles-based clothing designer Guess Inc. “I’m convinced this is the number one domestic issue.”