Dockworkers tackle huge backlog of cargo

Danny Pollock The Associated Press
Thursday October 10, 2002

LOS ANGELES (AP) — West Coast dockworkers headed back to work under court order Wednesday, facing a huge backlog of cargo that built up over 10 days but could take more than two months to clear. 

“Simply put, it’s more complicated to fix something than to break it,” said John Pachtner, a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies and terminal operators. 

The 10,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union were expected to begin reporting to work at 6 p.m., ending a lockout that shut down 29 ports from San Diego to Seattle and cost the nation’s fragile economy up to $2 billion a day by holding up exports and imports. 

President Bush intervened on Tuesday, obtaining an injunction to end the shutdown. 

Among the first cargo to be shipped will be perishables like seafood, meat and produce in refrigerated containers aboard some of the more than 200 ships anchored off the coast. After that, shipping companies will set their own priorities based on their customers’ needs and demand for cargo. 

The critical challenges will be lining up transportation on trucks, trains and planes, and finding enough longshoremen for what could be round-the-clock work, Pachtner said. 

“We need the ILWU to provide as many able-bodied people as possible who are fully productive,” he said. “That’s what will unclog the pipeline as soon as possible.” 

The lockout began after the maritime association accused union members of an illegal slowdown during contract talks. The dispute centers on the use of new waterfront technology that the union believes would eliminate jobs. 

On Tuesday, Bush became the first president in a quarter-century to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which allows a president to ask a federal court to stop a strike or lockout that imperils the nation’s health and safety. A federal judge in San Francisco issued the injunction. 

Dockworkers said they would go back to work, though many were unhappy about it and cited safety concerns, given the pressure to move items quickly. 

“We’ll work under our contract and under our safety book,” said Del Bates, vice president of ILWU Local 19 in Seattle. “I would think we shouldn’t blow through stop signs and shouldn’t have injuries and deaths.” 

The maritime association said employers would be looking for hundreds of additional workers. But even if all available workers labored at record pace, it could take up to 10 weeks to clear the backlog, association president Joseph Miniace said. 

Union Pacific, the nation’s largest railroad, sent extra cars to West Coast ports and opened a 24-hour “war room” in its dispatch center to give priority to eastbound shipments. 

Manufacturers hoped to get parts in time to avoid layoffs and shutdowns. 

“As soon as the (port) gates open, we think we can resume truck production by Friday morning,” said Michael Damer, a spokesman for New United Motor Manufacturing in Fremont. 

New United — the only major auto assembly plant west of the Rockies — had closed its assembly lines last week after exhausting its supply of parts usually shipped into Oakland. It resumed car production Monday using parts delivered by air from Japan. 

Some truckers said they would wait until the docks were working again before deciding how to proceed. “A lot of drivers aren’t going to go because it will be backed up,” said Stephanie Williams of the California Trucking Association. 

The truckers are a key link in the transportation chain because they haul cargo between the waterfront and inland storage points. 

After learning of the court order, trucker Juan Lopez, 44, drove five hours to the Port of Los Angeles from El Centro, hoping to drop off a load of hay bound for Japan. 

However, when he got to a berth in San Pedro, he was told no new containers were being accepted because the area was full. He turned around and went home, planning to return Friday. 

“Fortunetely hay won’t go bad,” he said. 

AP writers Justin Pritchard in San Francisco and Kate Berry in Los Angeles contributed to this story.