Mediator tries to reopen ports as pressure for intervention increases

Posted: Friday, October 04, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO - West Coast dockworkers and shipping companies returned to the negotiating table today while business turned up pressure on the White House to intervene and end further economic damage caused by a lockout at all 29 ports.

"The president is going to have to do what he feels necessary. We're going to continue to focus on these negotiations and get ourselves a contract," Jim Spinosa, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said as he headed into the negotiating session.

The labor agreement expired July 1 and neither side expects a fast resolution.

"We were told to bring our toothbrushes," Joseph Miniace, lead negotiator for the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines, said Thursday.

Today business leaders were scheduled to take their case to the White House to press for President Bush's intervention in the lockout that started Sunday.

Tacoma ship loading

The Associated Press

TACOMA Despite the labor dispute at West Coast ports, an Alaska-bound cargo ship is being loaded at the Port of Tacoma.

About 100 longshoremen are working, driving containers on board the vessel Northern Lights by truck. The Northern Lights is owned by Totem Ocean Trailer Express.

The union and TOTE agreed to cooperate to help customers in Alaska who need the supplies.

"We are very excited. Our members love to help the people of Alaska," said Vance Lelli, spokesman for Local 23 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

The ship was being loaded with a cargo of food, medical supplies and construction supplies. The ship was expected to leave Tacoma for Anchorage by tonight, Lelli said.

Lelli said the local has a strong relationship with TOTE and will continue to load its three ships. Another TOTE ship, the Greatland, was expected to begin loading after the Northern Lights departed, Lelli said.

TOTE vessels haul about 35 percent of all cargo destined for Southcentral Alaska.

An agreement with TOTE has been announced Thursday by the Alaska Congressional delegation. But a few hours later, a spokesman for Sen. Ted Stevens said the announcement had been premature.

"They were on the right page," Lelli said.

About 20 members of the business community were to meet with administration officials to talk about the shutdown, which is sapping billions of dollars from the nation's troubled economy.

"We will make the case abundantly clear that an extended shutdown of the ports will have a catastrophic effect on the economy," said Darren McKinney, spokesman for the National Association of Manufacturers, one of the groups planning to attend.

While some businesses have already called for government intervention, the NAM said it will not do so at this time.

"We will implore both parties to stay at the negotiating table as long as it takes," McKinney said.

The longer the PMA and the ILWU take to reach a settlement, the more the economic effects ripple through the wobbly U.S. economy.

"Every hour is another hour of economic harm," federal mediator Peter Hurtgen said before Thursday's negotiations began at a hotel here. "I think we all feel the pressure."

Along the coast, 162 ships were either idle at the docks or have dropped anchor, according to the shipping association. Another 13 were due to arrive by today.

Food is rotting in cargo holds, railroads have halted grain shipments from the Midwest and already one part-starved auto plant near San Francisco has closed since the meltdown over a contract dispute led to a port closure that began last Friday and resumed Sunday after an abbreviated reopening.

The work stoppage is hurting companies such as Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Elope Inc., a hat wholesaler that usually does brisk business this time of year.

"We've already lost the Halloween business. It's Christmas I'm worried about now," said company chief executive Kevin Johnson. "If this isn't resolved in the next week, we're dead in the water."

Having already hit the transportation and manufacturing sectors, the lockdown is now causing increased concern in the U.S. agriculture industry, as evidenced Thursday by a sharp drop in wheat futures on the Chicago Board of Trade.

The economic impact of the work stoppage was accelerating and could be costing the U.S. economy $2 billion a day, said Robert Parry, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Pressure continues to mount on President Bush to intervene under the Taft-Hartley Act. Under the act. A president can block a strike or lockout for 80 days if the dispute will "imperil the national health or safety." First, though, an inquiry board would investigate the issue, which could take several days.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is among the lawmakers who have appealed for Bush to order the ports reopened under those powers.

The last time the government intervened in a work stoppage under Taft-Hartley was 1978, when President Carter unsuccessfully tried to end a national coal strike.

Meanwhile, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka urged Bush not to use Taft-Hartley. Over the summer, unions charged the White House with meddling in the talks, and the White House has since meticulously avoided the appearance of getting involved.

AP writers Leigh Strope in Washington and Simon Avery in Los Angeles contributed to this story.

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