Election Section

Shippers don’t see longshoremen slowdown

By Justin Pritchard
Friday October 11, 2002


OAKLAND — As West Coast ports creaked back into motion after a 10-day lockout, dockside managers said disarray was the rule, but it did not appear longshoremen were staging a deliberate work slowdown. 

Mountains of cargo greeted dockworkers, and in some cases containers had been misplaced or equipment wasn’t available to move them smoothly off the docks and onto trucks or trains. However, data from shipping companies and terminal operators did not document a slowdown at the 29 major Pacific ports affected. 

“While there were some digressions, the operations were adequate,” sad Steve Sugerman, spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association. “There were no orchestrated work slowdowns as far as we can see.” 

If that assessment changes, the association could quickly go to federal court on allegations longshoremen are violating the order that reopened the ports. 

The 10-day lockout ended Wednesday night, the day after U.S. District Judge William Alsup ordered the ports reopened at the request of the Bush administration. 

Alsup’s original order was to expire Oct. 16, when he would review the case and determine whether to extend it into an 80-day “cooling-off period” under the Taft-Hartley Act. On Thursday, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and government lawyers agreed to extend the order for the 80 days without going back to court, a spokesmen for the union and association said. 

Alsup’s order requires that work resume “at a normal pace.” 

Officials at the 10,500-member union have promised to work as hard as they can without sacrificing safety. 

A union spokesman said Thursday that though dockworkers are laboring in good faith, he expected the association would seize on statistics from the least successful port reopening and run to court with claims of a slowdown. 

“They’re still analyzing production figures, right?” union spokesman Steve Stallone said. “What they’re doing that for is to come up with something they can use to press the case.” 

By any measure, the return to work came in fits and starts. 

One trucker in Los Angeles reported moving nine containers overnight — but then spent most of Thursday morning waiting for his next dispatch. In Portland, the port reopened Thursday morning instead of Wednesday night owing to a previously scheduled monthly dockworkers’ meeting. 

Even under ideal circumstances, it will take weeks to uncork the bottleneck in the domestic supply chain. Perishable cargos have first priority, but then it will be a free-for-all among importers and exporters vying to get their products in motion during the always-congested holiday import season. 

By some estimates, the shutdown cost the U.S. economy up to $2 billion per day. Despite the reopening, the initial blow continues to shiver through the economy. 

On Thursday, Gap Inc. became one of the first major retailers to reveal the impact when the clothier reported shipping delays could shave as much as $60 million from its holiday season profits. Officials at a Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Ill., said production would remain suspended through at least Friday as workers await key parts. 

In Los Angeles, truckers who queued up at terminals Thursday morning faced a turnaround time of around five hours — nearly double the norm, said Joe Nievez, president of Vernon-based Qwikway Trucking Co. Some kicked around a soccer ball as they waited in a 25-deep line at one pier where two cranes servicing three ships were unloading containers. 

He said it was too early to tell if the delay was caused by the flood of truckers who rushed to the terminals or by the pace of longshoremen’s work. 

“Everyone is anxious to get in and pick up cargo. There’s a lot of pressure from clients,” Nievez said. “If the terminal workers are slowing down or not working at full maximum, that will add to the delay.” 

Similar lines clogged the roads that crisscross the Port of Oakland. 

While those two ports resumed operations Wednesday night, Portland’s docks opened Thursday morning. 

“Terminal operators don’t even know where cargo is. They put trains everywhere they could. Containers are piled up on top of each other. It’s a mess,” said Leal Sundet, an official with the local union chapter. 

Work at Washington state’s major ports was humming along nicely, spokesmen said. 

“They’re getting the work done,” said Mick Schultz, spokesman for the Port of Seattle. “The productivity level is good. The pace of the work here is good. It’s at or very close to normal.” 

Meanwhile, there was no word that the two sides had made plans to meet with a federal mediator to hash out the contract dispute that led to the lockout in the first place. The longshoremen’s contract expired July 1, although it had been extended several times before Labor Day. The sticking point in negotiations is whether jobs created by new technology will be unionized.