LOS ANGELES >> A day before dockworkers were scheduled to return to the bargaining table, hundreds gathered today at major West Coast ports to protest against White House involvement in critical labor talks.
By Simon Avery
Negotiations with port operators and shipping lines have been undermined by comments from the Bush administration saying it would prevent a strike and keep the ports operating, officials at the International Longshore and Warehouse Union said.
ILWU officials charge the Bush administration has threatened to block their right to strike and even use government troops to operate the ports in the event of a labor disruption.
The Bush administration has convened a special task force with officials from the Commerce, Labor, Transportation departments and the office of Homeland Security, and has been exploring federal intervention, monitoring talks and meeting with both sides.
The most likely option is for President Bush to declare a national economic emergency, forcing a strike delay for 80 days. The last time such authority was invoked under the Taft-Hartley Act was 1978, when President Carter unsuccessfully tried to end a national coal strike.
"They are threatening us," Dave Arian, a union spokesman in Long Beach said before the rally.
"We're going to reach out to the public to express our frustration," he said. "As long as the PMA (Pacific Maritime Association) has the government behind them, they really don't have to bargain in good faith."
But Joseph Miniace, president of the PMA, said both sides are feeling heat from the White House. One of the most contentious issues on the table is the proposed introduction of labor saving technology to speed cargo and cut costs.
"I have been pressured by the White House to stay at the table," Miniace said in an interview Friday. "I have not been banking on White House support."
Negotiators from the ILWU and the PMA have scheduled their first meeting in nearly three weeks for tomorrow. Union members have been working on 24-hour extended contracts since their labor agreement expired July 1.
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