After a weeklong waterfrontUnion seeks strike authorization
slowdown, the union threatens
to cancel its extended contract
Slowdown affects isle food industry
By Russ Lynch
Hawaii dockworkers have begun a countdown that could lead to a statewide waterfront strike as early as Monday night, stopping movement of cargo on or off ships at all ports.
The International Longshore & Warehouse Union late last night gave the stevedoring companies notice that it intends to cancel its current contract. If it carries out that threatened action, members would be free to strike.
However, several possibilities exist that would avert a strike. Management says it is willing to meet with the union any time to continue negotiations and a new contract could be worked out before the union takes action.
Also, the union could cancel its 72-hour notice and keep working under the old contract, holding the strike threat as a bargaining tool to be invoked again any time.
There are ways, too, in which the companies or other entities, such as the state government, could use labor laws to prevent a walkout.
For now, however, the strike threat is active, after a week in which shipping companies say a slowdown on the docks has already cost them millions.
U.S. District Judge David Ezra yesterday ordered that slowdown to stop. It began with more than 200 stevedores, the people who actually run the equipment that lifts cargo onto and off the ships, failing to show up for work Sunday morning. Clerks and other ILWU members who support the stevedores did show up, but could not work because the cargo wasn't moving.
Union attorney Herbert Takahashi argued in court that the walkout was a spontaneous action by union members and not a union-authorized stop-work action.
Ezra didn't buy the argument. He said the walkout Sunday and a work slowdown that followed was done by workers with "either the overt or covert acquiescence" of the union leaders.
He made it clear that he left the union free to picket, strike or take other legal action to help it bargain for a new contract, but said the existing contract -- which expired June 30 but has been extended indefinitely subject to 72 hours notice by either side -- bans walkouts or slowdowns.
The slowdown this week, which some companies said has cut their cargo movement in half, was not officially a strike, but Ezra said the workers "have been in effect on strike," and the difference between a strike and a slowdown was "the difference between shooting someone and strangling them to death."
He granted a 10-day restraining order requested by Hawaii's four stevedoring companies: Hawaii Stevedores Inc., Matson Terminals Inc., HT&T Co. and McCabe, Hamilton & Renny Co.
Takahashi said in court that the restraining order affecting actions under the old contract gave the union no choice but to invoke the countdown to bring pressure on the companies to agree to a new pact. The ILWU in late August agreed to a new contract at West Coast ports that gave members, already among the highest-paid union workers in America, wage increases amounting to 8 percent over three years.
In Hawaii, both sides have refused to comment publicly on what terms might be under discussion for a new agreement in the islands.
Union seeksStar-Bulletin staff
The International Longshore & Warehouse Union today said it will begin taking a strike-authorization vote starting tomorrow, in case negotiations with stevedoring companies break down.
Eusebio Lapenia, president of the union's Local 142, said this afternoon that the union at present doesn't have plans to strike, but wanted to take the authorization vote in case it decides a strike is "the way to go."
The poll of the longshore unit's 500 members will begin on Lihue tomorrow, followed by votes in Kahului Monday, Hilo Tuesday and Friday on Oahu.
Lapenia said officials talked to members on the docks last night, and they seemed "very supportive" of giving the union authority to call a strike.
As for the impact a strike would have on Hawaii residents, Lapenia said, "We're not here to wreak any kind of havoc," but added that members want parity with their counterparts on the West Coast.
Lapenia had no comment this afternoon on the status of negotiations.
Food businessesBy Mary Adamski
feel slowdown the most
Islanders shopping for groceries or dining out aren't likely to feel an immediate impact from the weeklong dockworkers' slowdown, but it's already been costly to food businesses, according to the state's food and beverage wholesalers.
And consumers may find slim pickings for some items in a couple of weeks.
A federal judge yesterday issued a temporary restraining order telling ILWU Local 142 to end the slowdown, which began Sunday. After that, the union gave its 72-hour notice to terminate its contract.
The companies and union had been in negotiations for several months and operating under a contract extended since a June 30 expiration date.
Home Depot has 20 containers filled with hardware goods left on the docks that it can't touch, said assistant store manager Shawn Troup. That, of course, means consumers can't touch it either.
"There's definitely an effect on everybody in the retail sector on this island," Troup said. "We would prefer to have our stock now. So would our customers."
Back stock will provide goods for store shelves for the upcoming week. But once that goes, and if the dockworkers situation remains unresolved, shelves could become bare, he said.
"It would be very nice to see this thing as quickly resolved as possible so people can enjoy why we came here -- for good prices, great service and great products," he said.
There are no shortages yet, said Steve Christensen, distribution manager for Fleming Foods/-Hawaii division, the state's largest wholesaler.
"We've got plenty of rice and stacks of toilet paper," he said, referring to the items islanders traditionally stockpile. "There's not much impact except, for really fresh produce, there may be an impact next week."
Christensen said his company's inventory is relatively high because "we've been building up a little for the Y2K, just in case there is an issue."
"It's nothing drastic yet for us," he said. "There's additional expenses for waiting in line, taking longer to pick up. It's more expensive right now for us but we just eat it."
Jim Konersman, president of Anheuser-Busch Sales of Hawaii, said his company receives 50 or 60 container loads per ship. Its drivers normally would drive them all off the docks in a couple of days, he said, but "now we're paying our manpower to sit and wait," with the longest wait so far lasting seven hours.
"It's not an effective use of equipment or manpower. We're probably going to look at its effect on our costs. We may have to cut other costs to keep competitive," and that could affect his employees, Konersman said.
"There is truly a slowdown. It is going to deplete food items in the islands," he said. "This is a huge disservice. It's not a mature resolution of the problem."
Konersman said the company, which brings in about 50 percent of beer sold here, keeps about 10 days of inventory in refrigerated warehouses at five locations in the state.
"We're concerned about freshness, that's the reason we need to get containers off the ship as soon as possible." To fly in inventory would be prohibitively expensive, the beer wholesaler said.
A firm that supplies local restaurants and hotels already has had to resort to air freight.
Larry Vogel, president of Y. Hata & Co., said: "We've been forced to fly product in. We've had no alternative but to go to the extra expense."
One example was meeting the demand for a steakhouse customer, he said. "We had to fly steaks in to keep them going."
Vogel said he doesn't anticipate curtailed restaurant menus because of shortages since his company usually keeps "safety stock." But fresh meat isn't something that can be stockpiled, he said.
"So far we haven't failed to deliver," he said. "We have taken the extra step of searching around town or paying to fly it in."
Vogel said the company has sent letters to customers notifying them of potential problems.
Star-Bulletin writer Lori Tighe contributed to this report.