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Editorials
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Tuesday, October 8, 2002



[ OUR OPINION ]

Cooling-off period
may resolve port conflict


THE ISSUE

President Bush has begun a process aimed at imposing a cooling-off period in the West Coast dockworkers labor dispute.


HAWAII and Alaska have been spared from further isolation created by the West Coast dockworkers dispute, but not from its potentially enormous effect on the American economy. White House intervention does not guarantee a resolution of the conflict but it is worth the attempt to avoid economic turmoil that would result from a prolonged work stoppage.

President Bush had been reluctant to invoke the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which could result in an order that ports be in operation for as long as 80 days while labor-management talks continue. Presidents have sought such cooling-off periods in 11 coast-wide strikes, but the strikes resumed after the 80 days in eight of those instances. A back-to-work injunction prompted by a management-ordered lockout is believed to be unprecedented.

Agreement by the Pacific Maritime Association, representing shippers and port operators, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to resume shipments between Hawaii and Alaska and the West Coast offered hope that a more comprehensive pact could be reached. The two sides reportedly were discussing further exceptions for perishable produce and grains when the talks broke down Sunday night.

Bush appointed a panel of inquiry, as prescribed by Taft-Hartley, to assess the economic damage created by the port shutdown. The White House cited numerous news accounts of plant closings that already have resulted from a cut-off of imported parts and the rotting of perishable items awaiting export.

The shipping association ordered the lockout on Sept. 29, complaining of a work slowdown by union members working at the ports. At the heart of the conflict is the employers' proposal to introduce labor-saving technology, and the union's insistence that the technology-created jobs be filled by union members. Only 100 jobs are involved, but the dispute follows a history of job reductions caused by automation.

The number of dockworkers dealing with containerized cargo at West Coast ports is 10,500, compared to 100,000 longshoremen who relied on hooks to move break-bulk cargo in the 1950s. As a concession to past automation, dockworkers' salaries soared to an average of more than $100,000. Still, American ports are the most inefficient in the world; the technology proposed by the West Coast shippers is basic to most other ports, the equivalent of bar-code scanning in retail stores.

The U.S. economy should not be imperiled by a union clinging to antiquated work methods, nor should union members be excluded from operating modern equipment that has become basic to the industry elsewhere. Shippers and dockworkers should be able to find a way -- like employers and unions in other industries -- to accept available technology without disruption of the workplace.



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Frank Bridgewater, Editor 529-4791; fbridgewater@starbulletin.com
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