Angry dockers return to work on West Coast

By HIL ANDERSON   |   Oct. 9, 2002 at 9:47 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- West Coast longshoremen were in a defiant mood Wednesday night as they reluctantly returned to work under an uneasy truce called by a federal judge, who agreed with the Bush administration's contention that the lockout of more than 10,000 union dockworkers was harming the economy.

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents West Coast shipping companies, began organizing work crews at International Longshore and Warehouse Union dispatch halls Wednesday afternoon to tackle the backlog of freight that built up from Seattle to San Diego over the course of the 10-day lockout.

While the temporary injunction issued Tuesday was technically aimed at management, it was the ILWU that took umbrage at being ordered to get back to work under the terms of the contract that expired last month.

"The union is very happy to be returning to work today, but under the current conditions, we are not happy," Ramon Ponce de Leon, the head of the ILWU in Los Angeles, told a news conference that was punctuated by cheers and shouts from a crowd of dockworkers who had been barred from working since Sept. 29.

"We are not happy with the presidential order that invoked the Taft-Hartley Act and brought an injunction against American workers."

The White House stepped into the dispute by seeking an injunction to end the lockout that the shippers had ordered amid what the PMA termed a slowdown by the powerful union.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup issued a temporary injunction Tuesday in San Francisco that began an 80-day cooling-off period called for under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act.

He also scheduled a hearing for Oct. 16 to decide whether to issue a permanent injunction against further lockouts.

Meanwhile, trucks and trains began to rumble again through the port complexes that had been silent since the lockout began, while harbor pilots headed out to the anchored armadas to guide the first vessels into port.

"We'll pull together. There is not going to be any trouble," Bill Bates, a spokesman for ILWU Local 19 in Puget Sound, told Seattle television station KIRO on Wednesday.

The Taft-Hartley Act allows the president to halt work stoppages if it is determined the situation presents a serious threat to national security or to the economy.

It was last used 24 years ago when a temporary injunction was granted to the Carter administration during a coal strike.

The result of the work stoppage brought a virtual halt to the flow of goods in and out of normally bustling harbors such as Oakland, Seattle and the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex.

Analysts estimate the lockout cost the U.S. economy more than $1 billion; some estimates put the amount as high as $2 billion.

An estimated 15,000 cargo containers aboard 120 ships were waiting to be unloaded in the combined Los Angeles-Long Beach ports, the largest container port complex in the nation.

Fleets of container ships and other merchant vessels from Asia and the rest of the world have been lying at anchor off Los Angeles and other West Coast harbors waiting to unload while piles of exports, particularly perishable farm products, sat in warehouses with no place to go.

"West Coast port activity is especially strong during the last quarter of the year for high-value perishable fruits and vegetables destined for the Asian markets," said Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman. "Nearly 30 percent of annual U.S. fresh fruit exports and 27 percent of the annual fresh and frozen vegetable exports are shipped through West Coast ports during October, November and December."

The National Wheat Growers Association said in a statement that the inability to move grain out of the West Coast was directly responsible for a recent 10-cent per bushel decline in bids.

"American wheat growers have invested in opening markets around the world for over 50 years, but these efforts are jeopardized by the ongoing dispute," the organization said. "Customers become concerned about the reliability of our service, and competitors rush in to claim our hard-won market share."

The backlog of freight is expected to take six to nine weeks to clear out, the PMA estimated.

While the ILWU declared that it was ready and willing to return to work, the union also opposed government intervention while the shippers gave lukewarm approval to the move. The PMA stated that it had called the lockout because a slowdown had brought the docks to a halt.

The ILWU opposed federal intervention because it took away the leverage that the union's right to strike gave them in the negotiations with the PMA. The Taft-Hartley Act also mandates the involvement of federal mediators in the contract talks, which labor fears will tilt the balance of power toward management.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson told the Los Angeles rally that the shippers' organization had been emboldened to lock the ILWU out because it had the support of the Bush administration.

"They knew they had an ally in Washington who would intervene, not to negotiate, but to interfere and bust the union," he said.

The ILWU and PMA have been deadlocked over technology upgrades, which the PMA says are needed to keep track of growing volumes of cargo. The union wants any new IT jobs to go to union clerks rather than non-union contractors.

Union officials have also voiced concerns that the court order requiring longshoremen to work at a normal pace will be used by the PMA to implement a speedup that will skirt safety regulations.

The ILWU suspects the PMA will try to link "normal" productivity with the heavy volumes of cargo moved prior to the lockout as companies hurried to get cargoes to their destinations before a feared work stoppage. The result could be demands from the PMA that the union face sanctions for an illegal slowdown.

"We fully expect PMA to use all the anti-union provisions of the Taft-Hartley injunction," said ILWU President James Spinosa.

"These 80 days will not be a 'cooling-off period,' PMA will start alleging 'slowdowns' by Thursday and will continue that," Spinosa said.

"Taft-Hartley gives them 80 days of free shots at the union, and we expect the employers will be dragging us to court daily, trying to bankrupt the union and throw our leaders in jail."

California Gov. Gray Davis said Wednesday in an appearance on KFWB radio in Los Angeles that the state would monitor the pace of activity on the docks for any signs of speedups or slowdowns.

"If there's something going on that we think is wrong, we'll either take action directly or bring it to the federal government's attention," Davis said.

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