Shippers withold evidence of dockworker slowdown

By Justin Pritchard
Monday October 21, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO – After promising this week to produce proof of a dockworker slowdown at West Coast ports, shipping companies embroiled in a labor dispute with longshoremen on Friday again delayed filing the documents with Department of Justice lawyers. 

The records are key because federal prosecutors will review them and decide whether to go after the longshoremen’s union based on a federal court order that reopened the ports last week after a 10-day lockout. 

Officials with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union pounced on the apparent delay as evidence the association was scrounging for a case — and unable to grasp one because workers are doing their best to move cargo under difficult and dangerous conditions. 

But a spokesman with the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies and port terminal operators, dismissed that suggestion. Association lawyers were reviewing the document, a narrative sprinkled with data that asserts work productivity is off up to 30 percent in some ports, and would either e-mail it today. 

“We had hoped to complete the document and make the submission to the Department of Justice earlier this week, but we want to ensure that the case we make is air-tight,” association spokesman John Pachtner said Friday. “Everyone would like to move from analysis to action as quickly as possible.” 

Association officials had said the submission would be made Thursday, and on Friday morning said it was about to go — but by close of business Friday, the document had not been sent. 

“They don’t have a case and they’ve got to keep searching and searching for something that’ll hold up to cross-examination,” said union spokesman Steve Stallone. “And they don’t have it.” 

A federal judge may determine that. 

On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge William Alsup formally approved the 80-day “cooling-off” period that President Bush requested last week. Under the order, longshoremen must work “at a normal pace” — if Alsup determines they are deliberately slowing down, he has broad discretion to impose penalties. 

In an interview Friday, association President Joseph Miniace said he didn’t want Justice Department lawyers to drag the union to court. Rather, Miniace said he wanted prosecutors to tell union officials to “stop screwing around” and hunker down at the bargaining table. 

It was a meltdown over a new contract that led to the lockout late last month. A federal mediator met with union officials Wednesday and may meet with association representatives next week. 

Chief atop his list of issues will be how to modernize 29 major Pacific ports covered by the contract to the satisfaction of the 10,500-member union — that is, how to introduce labor-saving technology without slashing too many union jobs. 

It won’t be an easy task, not least with both sides busy trading blame for the slow pace of cargo movement. 

The union says the association has sabotaged the reopening by undersupplying equipment such as truck chassis to move containers so that the congested docks will remain a mess, even going on two weeks after the lockout ended. 

“They are purposely not moving the containers off the docks so that the whole place is a disaster,” Stallone said. 

Nonsense, said Miniace. 

“We know the union is going to say it’s a backlog from the shutdown,” he said. “Yes, it is a little congested, but have we handled these volumes in the past? Absolutely.” 

Miniace said the association is documenting slowdowns in each port — from a 28 percent drop in productivity at Oakland to around 20 percent in Tacoma, Seattle and Portland to around 10 percent in Los Angeles/Long Beach, the nation’s largest port complex. 

Meanwhile, the lingering effects of the shutdown continue to shiver through the economy. 

Honda of America Manufacturing Inc. temporarily halted production Friday at four Ohio plants to allow parts to build up in the automaker’s supply line, disrupted because of the labor dispute at West Coast ports. The move affected nearly 12,000 workers. The work should resume early next week. 

Also, a ship with thousands of cameras the San Francisco Giants were going to give away during Game 4 of the World Series next week is stalled outside the Port of Los Angeles. They won’t arrive in time.