Workers, shipping lines no nearer to deal as west cargo ships remain idle

Posted: Tuesday, October 01, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO - Car parts sat unloaded at Bay Area ports. Korean televisions remained boxed up in Southern California. Avocados from Central America sat idle in containers at the Port of Tacoma, Wash.

A labor dispute between dockworkers and shipping lines dragged into today, leaving containers stationary from Vancouver to San Diego and cargo ships brimming with car parts, produce and other goods anchored offshore.

Both sides returned to the bargaining table Monday, with the promise of a federal mediator to join today. The labor crisis comes as importers scramble to bring in merchandise for the Christmas shopping season.

Economists said a protracted work stoppage could ripple through the U.S. economy, and a five-day shutdown would wipe out $4.7 billion in wages and revenue, according to the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and sea terminal operators.

The Bush administration said it is concerned about the shutdown's economic consequences, but had no immediate plans to break the impasse by declaring a national emergency. The lockout could cost the U.S. economy $1 billion a day.

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

Dockworkers were ordered off their jobs indefinitely Sunday at all 29 of the nation's major West Coast ports. The two sides are at odds over pensions and other benefits, as well as cargo-handling technology that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union fears would eliminate jobs.

Dozens of ships are waiting to be unloaded outside ports along the West Coast, including 46 ships in Southern California alone. Another half dozen were expected to arrive in the Bay Area today, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.

Trucker Salvador Nunez drove to the Port of Los Angeles from a small town near the Mexican border with a load of alfalfa sprouts and hay - but was turned away, unable to unload.

Nunez was out $125 in transportation costs and could not collect his usual $400 for the job. If the work stoppage lasts more than a week, "it will be too long," said Nunez, who supports a wife and two children. "I'll be out of money."

In ordering the lockout, the Pacific Maritime Association accused the union of disrupting work by understaffing operations and dispatching workers not skilled for specific jobs. The union said it was strictly following safety codes because employers were bargaining in bad faith.

West Coast shipping lines vowed to keep the ports closed until the longshoremen agree to extend their expired contract until a new deal can be reached. The 10,500-member dockworkers union has refused to budge until the lockout ends.

West Coast ports handled more than $300 billion in cargo over the past year.

At New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc., in Fremont, Calif., officials said they would have to shut down production by week's end if motors and transmissions in containers at the Port of Oakland don't arrive on time.

"You simply cannot find an alternative for parts," said company spokesman Michael Damer.

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