WASHINGTON - President Bush moved Monday toward forcibly reopening West Coast ports, creating a special board of inquiry to determine the impact of a labor dispute that has brought shipping trade to a virtual halt and is costing the economy an estimated $1 billion a day.
The move came hours after contract negotiations between workers and management collapsed.
In an executive order, Bush gave the board of inquiry one day to report back to him, and he was expected to ask the courts to order a resumption of work for 80 days. Though the administration promised an unbiased examination of the lockout, Bush appeared to have made up his mind that it was hurting national security and the economy. Senior administration officials said it was virtually certain Bush will seek the "cooling-off period."
"A continuation of this lockout, if permitted to continue, will imperil the national health and safety," Bush wrote in his executive order.
"Ordinary Americans are being seriously harmed by this dispute," Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said. "Family farmers and ranchers are being devastated by the shutdown. Millions, if not billions of dollars of American produce, meat and poultry are rotting in containers on the docks and on idled trucks and rail cars." The lockout has already caused layoffs, and could prompt thousands more, her department said.
The department also warned the lockout could hurt national security, because the armed forces and defense contractors rely on commercial ships that use West Coast ports.
The formation of the board of inquiry - a step taken only rarely by presidents - is required under the Taft-Hartley Act before the president can order management to let the workers back in. Bush's next step would be to make his case in federal court, with Attorney General John Ashcroft asking for a ruling that the dispute is hurting entire industries and jeopardizing national health or safety.
Chao said that if an injunction is granted by the court, the ports could be reopened in a matter of one or two days.
But historically, cooling-off periods have failed to permanently end labor disputes.
Labor Department Solicitor Eugene Scalia told reporters that there had been 11 coast-wide dock work stoppages since the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947 and in all of those cases, the president sought injunctions after convening a board of inquiry.
In at least eight of those instances, the 80-day cooling-off period failed to resolve the dispute and the work stoppage resumed once it was over.
"Experience shows that this simply delays the settlement process," said Michael LeRoy, professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "It does not end the dispute by any means. Typically what happens is the parties go back to their corners and stew."
Just before the 80 days end, "they rush back to the table more angry than they were 80 days before," he said.
But a cooling-off period could keep the ports open during the crucial Christmas season, in which retailers are relying on imported goods to stock their shelves. The tradeoff for the Bush administration, LeRoy said, is that a mandatory cooling-off period could energize organized labor - traditionally a Democratic ally - just before midterm elections.
Bush is the first president to invoke Taft-Hartley during a lockout, as opposed to a strike, LeRoy said.
The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies and terminal operators, has locked out 10,500 members of the longshoremen's union, claiming the dockworkers engaged in a slowdown late last month.
The association ordered the lockout until the union agrees to extend a contract that expired July 1. The main disputes are over pensions and other benefits, and whether jobs created by new technology will be unionized.
Labor talks broke off in San Francisco late Sunday night after the union rejected the latest contract proposal.
The lockout, which entered its second week Sunday, is costing the economy as much as $1 billion a day, the White House estimated. According to Robert Parry, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, it is costing $2 billion a day.
The number of cargo vessels stranded at West Coast docks or backing up at anchor points has risen to 200. Dozens more were still en route from Asia. Already, storage facilities at beef, pork and poultry processing facilities across the country are full - crammed with produce that can't be exported.
Bush named to the board of inquiry Sen. Bill Brock, a Tennessee Republican, a former U.S. trade representative and labor secretary; Patrick Hardin, a professor at the University of Tennessee College of Law and one-time National Labor Relations Board official; and Dennis R. Nolan, a professor at the University of South Carolina law school and vice president of the National Academy of Arbitrators.