Bush asks court to reopen ports

Workers accept a deal, but shipping lines reject proposal

Posted: Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Shipping line negotiators scuttled a last-minute Bush administration attempt to avoid invoking the Taft-Hartley law to resolve the West Coast port labor dispute, dock workers said today.

Longshoremen had accepted the deal offered this morning by Labor Department solicitor Eugene Scalia, agreeing to return to work under a 30-day contract extension and continue talks with a federal mediator, union spokesman Steve Stallone said.

The union had assumed that Taft-Hartley had been averted until Scalia called back to say that managers of shipping lines and 29 West Coast ports had rejected the Bush administration offer.

Minutes later, President Bush announced he was asking Attorney General John Ashcroft to seek an injunction under the Taft-Hartley Act, which imposes an 80-day "cooling off period" that would force the ports to reopen.

Organized labor considers Taft-Hartley to be an anti-union mechanism for resolving labor disputes.

"They wanted to Taft-Hartley the union all along," Stallone said. "All along, they wanted the government to come in and solve the problem for them."

Joseph Miniace, president of the Pacific Maritime Association that represents shipping lines, would not immediately comment on the Scalia deal. He said the PMA would explain its position later today.

"I'm sorry it has come to this," Miniace said of Bush's move, "but we have got to get this behind us."

The 10-day labor dispute that has closed West Coast ports has cost the fragile U.S. economy as much as $2 billion a day.

President Bush directed government lawyers today to go to court to seek a temporary cease-fire in a caustic 10-day labor dispute that has closed West Coast ports and cost the fragile economy as much as $2 billion a day. "The federal government must act," Bush said.

"The work stoppage is hurting our entire economy," Bush said in a hastily arranged announcement outside the Oval Office. "It is hurting truckers and rail operators who carry goods to other parts of America. It's hurting farmers and ranchers and manufacturers, retailers and consumers who make, buy and sell the products that pass through our ports."

Bush said goods vital to the U.S. military are being held up by the shutdown.

"It is hurting the security of our country, and the federal government must act," Bush said.

Bush will seek a court injunction to reopen West Coast ports for an 80-day "cooling-off period."

It marks the first presidential effort in a quarter century to end a work stoppage under the Taft-Hartley Act.

The court action followed a report by a presidential inquiry board formed Monday to measure the economic harm and detail the demands of both sides.

The blow that initially struck truckers, shipping lines and farmers has rippled to other parts of the economy.

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies and terminal operators, locked out 10,500 members of the longshoremen's union last week, claiming the dockworkers were engaging in a slowdown.

The longshoremen's contract expired July 1, although it had been extended several times before Labor Day. The sticking point in negotiations is whether jobs created by new technology will be unionized. The average full-time dock worker in the ILWU makes $80,000 a year. The most experienced foremen can earn $167,000.

"The ports are going to be open soon and this crisis we are in will be over," Miniace said.

But James Spinosa, president of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union International, said: "The government, along with the corporate world, are trying to break unions."

Historically, cooling-off periods have failed to permanently end labor disputes.

Eleven coast-wide dock strikes have occurred since the Taft-Hartley Act allowing presidential intervention was passed in 1947. In all of those cases the president sought court orders after convening an inquiry board, according to the Labor Department. But in at least eight of those instances, the 80-day cooling-off period failed to resolve the disputes and the strikes resumed.

But a cooling-off period would keep the ports open during the crucial Christmas season, in which retailers are relying on imported goods to stock their shelves. The trade-off for the Bush administration, said Michael LeRoy, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,, is that a mandatory cooling-off period could energize organized labor - traditionally a Democratic ally - just before midterm elections.

Analysts have estimated the losses at anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion a day as manufacturers run low on parts, exporters lose sales and retailers watch supplies of key merchandise dwindle. No one knows for sure what the real number is or how much can be recouped. But few question that the shutdown was entering a critical phase for a U.S. economy that has embraced lean inventory practices that require a swift, smooth flow of goods to keep the wheels of commerce turning.

"Because of just-in-time production, no one has big supplies of inventory or parts on hand," said William Primosch, director of international business policy for the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington. "It starts with an industry like autos and just goes down the line."

Indeed, Monday brought the second announced shutdown of a U.S. auto plant since the management lockout at 29 West Coast ports began Sept. 29. Boeing Co.'s production of 767 and 777 jetliners in Seattle made with fuselage panels, cargo doors and other parts from Asia is beginning to be disrupted, spokesman Peter Conte said.

For exporters of perishable goods, the window for moving cargo was closing quickly. Dole Food Co., the world's largest fresh fruit and vegetable producer, sought an emergency court order that would allow it to retrieve more than 8.3 million pounds of rapidly ripening bananas, plantains and yuccas that are being held in 241 refrigerated containers on the dock at the Port of Los Angeles.

The company said in court papers that it stands to lose more than $1.7 million unless it can get access to the produce, shipped last week from Ecuador. Named as defendants in the action are the Pacific Maritime Association and one of its members, Transpacific Container Service Corp. Likewise, Sunkist Growers Inc. estimated that it stands to lose about $2.1 million a week in citrus export sales.

Automaker Mitsubishi Motors Corp. said it will halt production at its Normal, Ill., assembly plant Wednesday because the port closures have reduced supplies of parts from Asia needed to make passenger cars. About 3,000 employees will be offered paid training, vacation time or unpaid leave.

Other automakers are turning to expensive air freight to keep their factories running.

The New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont, Calif., which shut down last week, reopened its passenger-car assembly line Monday after receiving two shipments of parts, including heavy transmissions, flown from Japan on chartered 747 jets.

The airlifts are too costly to provide more than a stopgap alternative to ocean freight.

Production has been slashed at many of the nation's beef and pork plants, in some cases by as much as half, as cold storage facilities fill up with expensive cuts bound for Asian markets, the American Farm Bureau Federation said.

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