Dockworkers got the word from a foreman, right, that there would be no work yesterday at Orient Overseas Container Line at Long Beach Harbor. Workers at 29 West Coast ports were barred from their jobs until the union OKs a contract extension.

West Coast cargo
piles up

Dockworkers are again barred
from their jobs as a frail
labor truce shatters

Lockout affects major isle shippers

By Justin Pritchard
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO >> Hundreds of millions of dollars of cargo sat idle off the West Coast today with port workers ordered off their jobs for a second time in a labor dispute that could cost the nation an estimated $1 billion a day.

A frail labor peace between shipping lines and West Coast longshoremen collapsed yesterday when workers were barred indefinitely from the docks at the 29 major Pacific ports.

The Pacific Maritime Association, representing shipping lines and sea terminal operators, ordered the lockout until the longshoremen's union agrees to extend a contract that expired July 1.

Both sides agreed to meet this afternoon in San Francisco. They are at odds over benefits and pension packages and cargo-handling technology that the union fears would wipe out jobs.

Officials said the Bush administration has no immediate plans to declare a national emergency and try to end the shutdown. Still, the White House expressed concern.

"If it goes on for even a short period of time, it's a problem for the economy," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer "We're monitoring it closely."

The Bush administration is working to get both sides to the bargaining table Thursday with federal mediators. The Pacific Maritime Association has agreed to talk, but the union has not yet replied.

Economists have warned a protracted disruption will have ripple effects throughout the U.S. economy. Hawaii relies on shipping for about 90 percent of its goods. Assembly lines across the country may stop production as ordered parts fail to arrive.

West Coast ports handled more than $300 billion in cargo over the past year. Over the weekend, about 30 ships had to moor outside berths at ports in Los Angeles, Oakland, Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., the association said. And 70 vessels did not get serviced.

"If you went this weekend to a shopping mall, you're going to be affected by this lockout," said Miguel Contreras, a local spokesman for the National Labor Movement. "The American public is going to pay for it this Christmas."

Negotiators with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, representing 10,500 dock workers, blamed shipping lines for the meltdown.

"This union is ready to go to work," Jim Spinoza, union president and chief negotiator, said yesterday in Los Angeles.

Pacific Maritime Association president Joseph Miniace called the decision a "defensive shutdown."

Association officials accused the union of disrupting work yesterday by understaffing operations and dispatching workers who weren't skilled at the jobs they reported for.

"I will not pay workers to strike," he said.

Yesterday's shutdown came less than 12 hours after longshoremen returned to the docks as shipping lines lifted a lockout imposed Friday soon after contract negotiations fell apart. Talks began in May.

Peter Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, asked both sides to come to Washington, D.C., for talks on Thursday, said the service's chief of staff, John Toner.

The last time an economic emergency was declared under the Taft-Hartley Act to force a strike delay for 80 days was in 1978, when President Carter unsuccessfully tried to end a national coal strike.

President Bush doesn't plan to use that authority lightly, and "I would highly doubt" that the administration would do so before federal mediators try to resolve the dispute Thursday, if both sides agree to meet, said the administration official.

More than 10,000 union members, including 6,000 in Long Beach and Los Angeles, have been without a contract since July 1. The bulk of the nation's imports from China and Japan come through the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, the nation's busiest ports.

Earlier in the bargaining process, there were signs of progress over benefits and pension packages. Under the last contract, full-time longshoremen earn an average annual salary of $80,000, while the most experienced foremen average $167,000.

But the talks crumbled this week over the question of how to implement new technology on the waterfront.

Longshoremen said they can accept short-term job losses from increased efficiency, but the union wanted guarantees that positions created by computer tracking systems would be union covered.

Shipping line officials countered that trade increases will more than offset job losses, but the union shouldn't have jurisdiction over every new job that new technology produces.

Yesterday at the union's San Francisco chapter, historically one of the most militant on the coast, labor leaders told workers to report to a dispatch hall for random assignment. That meant, for example, that experienced crane operators chose other jobs, and left their less experienced co-workers to operate the cranes - a move that slowed down loading and unloading.

"They wanted us to come back like we were going to be good little puppy dogs," said Richard Mead, president of the San Francisco chapter. "It doesn't work like that on the waterfront."

Pacific Maritime Association

International Longshore and Warehouse Union

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