Activity sputters at West Coast ports as longshoremen return

Posted: Friday, October 11, 2002

LOS ANGELES - Dockworkers at West Coast ports were back on the job moving cargo but weren't always doing it fast enough to satisfy their employers, setting the stage for a potential court battle if things don't pick up quickly.

At the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's busiest complex, the stream of ships moving in and out of terminals today remained constant.

Fifteen vessels were due to arrive today at the complex, and 13 were expected to depart after being unloaded, said Manny Aschemeyer, executive director of the Marine Exchange at the ports.

"We're kind of maintaining the count as we pull ships out," Aschemeyer said. "The pile is not diminishing that quickly so to speak."

Steve Sugerman, a spokesman with the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, has said work at the ports was "sluggish" after dockworkers returned to the job Wednesday night after a costly 10-day lockout.

Shipping managers hoped to see improvement today, Sugerman said.

If things don't pick up, the association could go to federal court and accuse the longshoremen of violating the terms of a return-to-work order issued Tuesday by a judge at the request of President Bush.

When the association locked out the dockworkers, it accused them of deliberately staging a work slowdown after contract negotiations stalled amid disagreements over pensions, benefits and whether jobs created by new technology would be unionized.

The workers returned to find docks cluttered with a mountainous backlog of cargo. In some places, containers had been misplaced and equipment was not readily available to quickly move goods onto trucks and trains.

"Terminal operators don't even know where cargo is. They put trains everywhere they could. Containers are piled up on top of each other. It's a mess," complained Leal Sundet, an official with the local union chapter in Portland, Ore.

Truckers waiting to collect cargo at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach faced a turnaround time of around five hours - nearly double the norm, said Joe Nievez, president of Qwikway Trucking Co.

Some drivers kicked around a soccer ball as they waited in a 25-deep truck line at one pier where two cranes servicing three ships were unloading containers.

Nievez said it was too early to tell if the delay was caused by the flood of truckers who rushed to the terminals or by the dockworkers' pace.

Luis Umana, director of transportation for trucking firm Price Transfer Inc., said he didn't believe the delays were deliberate.

"The longshoremen may have people who didn't want to get involved in the picketing and are out of town," Umana said. "I'm hoping that by today everything should be back to normal when it comes to staffing the ports."

Officials at the 10,500-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union have promised to work as hard as they can without sacrificing safety.

Some ports reported that work had returned to normal.

"They're getting the work done," said Mick Schultz, spokesman for the Port of Seattle. "The productivity level is good. The pace of the work here is good. It's at or very close to normal."

Even under ideal circumstances, it will take weeks to uncork the bottleneck in the domestic supply chain. Perishable cargo and military items have first priority, but then it will be a free-for-all among importers and exporters vying to get their products in motion during the always-congested holiday import season.

The lockout cost the economy up to $2 billion a day by some estimates. In ordering it ended, U.S. District Judge William Alsup in San Francisco cited its impact on the fragile U.S. economy.

His order expires Wednesday, at which time he was to review the case and determine whether to extend it to an 80-day "cooling-off period" under the Taft-Hartley Act. But the union and government lawyers said they had agreed Thursday to extend the order for the 80 days without returning to court.

There was no word, however, on whether the union and the maritime association had agreed to meet with a federal mediator to hash out the contract dispute that led to the lockout.

Associated Press Writers Justin Pritchard in San Francisco, Melanthia Mitchell in Seattle and Andrew Kramer in Portland contributed to this report.

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