Slow going for ports despite dockworkers return

Angela Watercutter The Associated Press
Tuesday October 15, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — As dockworkers finished their first weekend back to work, both the union and port operators agreed on one thing: It’s still slow going. 

Union officials blame the sluggish pace at the ports on the aftermath of the 10-day lockout, while port operators are keeping an eye out for an intentional slowdown. 

Meanwhile, in the interest of both sides, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, Cal-OSHA, has been monitoring activity on the California ports over the weekend to make sure work is done safely and quickly. 

Shipping companies and port terminal operators said that longshoremen’s work was off about 25 percent Friday, and charged that the pace of work at the 29 major Pacific ports continued to be slow Sunday. 

“There’s no question that the ports are limping along and we are monitoring the situation and getting information together,” said Steve Sugerman, a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association. “We expect we can report back on that (Monday).” 

The association has the option of taking its slowdown charges to a federal judge in San Francisco to ask for relief — but the courts are closed until Tuesday. 

Union officials blamed the slow pace on a lack of train cars in Seattle and Oakland. A shortage of truck chassis have also kept the ports clogged, said Steve Stallone, a spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 10,500 longshoremen. 

“You can take the containers off the ships, but you can’t get them out of the ports,” he said. 

Also, he said, crowded conditions on the docks have made work very dangerous. 

“The problem becomes, where do these containers go?” Stallone said. “They just stack up in the yard. Now we’re piling containers on top of containers. Accidents have already started happening because of the congestion.” 

Port operators are more interested in documenting the supposed slowdowns by the union than clearing the docks, Stallone said. 

“We’re out there working. We’re out there risking our lives again. But all they can do is run around trying to document what we’re doing wrong,” he said. 

To make sure that longshoremen are working quickly and safely Cal-OSHA teams were deployed to Oakland’s port Friday and arrived at ports in Los Angeles and Long Beach on Saturday to monitor work, said Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for California Gov. Gray Davis. She said the decision was made by the state agency and that although Davis was notified, the directive didn’t come from the governor. 

“They want to make sure that safety is maintained while people try to work quickly to catch up on the backlog,” McLean said. 

McLean said Saturday it was too early to tell if there are violations. 

A federal judge approved President Bush’s request Tuesday to reopen the ports after the lockout, which was costing the U.S. economy $1 billion to $2 billion a day. An agreement was then reached to keep the docks open for 80 days, which ensures retailers will receive their merchandise during the busy Christmas season. 

Federal mediator Peter Hurtgen will talk next week with both sides about scheduling the next round of contract negotiations — the lockout came after a meltdown in contract talks. The union said it expected to talk to him starting Wednesday; association President Joseph Miniace said he wouldn’t meet with Hurtgen until next weekend. 

Atop Hurtgen’s list will be a thorny issue — how to modernize the West Coast waterfront with new cargo-tracking technology that could cost union jobs. The union says it can accept short-term cuts as long as future technology-related jobs fall under its control.