Bush to seek order to reopen ports
Panel says poisoned labor relations make pact unlikely, setting stage for federal intervention.
October 8, 2002: 3:14 PM EDT
By Chris Isidore, CNN/Money Staff Writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - The Bush administration is set to seek a court order Tuesday afternoon to reopen West Coast ports after a federal panel looking at an ongoing labor dispute said federal intervention is needed to break the impasse.

The lockout of 10,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union essentially has choked U.S.-Asian trade since Sept. 27 and caused an estimated $2 billion in damage a day to the U.S. economy.

Dockworker Nick Padovan and other locked out members of his union could be back to work as early as Wednesday under a court order expected Tuesday.  
Dockworker Nick Padovan and other locked out members of his union could be back to work as early as Wednesday under a court order expected Tuesday.

A three-member panel appointed by Bush Monday set the stage for the president to go to court and seek an order to reopen the ports for an 80-day cooling-off period.

"We believe that the seeds of distrust have been widely sown, poisoning the atmosphere of mutual trust and respect which could enable a resolution of seemingly intractable issues," the report to Bush Tuesday said. "We have no confidence that the parties will resolve the West Coast ports dispute within a reasonable time."

Bush is set to comment on the dispute at 4 p.m. ET (1 p.m. PT) Tuesday to announce his decision, but senior administration officials tell CNN that he will do as expected and seek a court order to reopen the 29 West Coast ports.

Retailers, manufacturers, and agricultural and other food producers have been particularly hard hit by the shutdown. The lockout came during the peak season for shipping consumer goods for the holiday shopping season. It also is disrupting the flow of parts needed for assembly lines. And millions of dollars of fruits and vegetables are rotting while waiting to be shipped.

The work stoppage also has disrupted freight transportation systems across the world, as about 200 ships remained anchored off the coast waiting to load or unload cargo. And it has caused problems for truckers and railroads across North America.

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The Bush administration is set to seek a court order to reopen West Coast ports. CNNfn's Louise Schiavone reports.

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The Pacific Maritime Association, the management group that represents major shipping lines and terminal operators that locked out the union, estimates that it will be able to reopen the ports within one shift after any court order, meaning that an order even late Tuesday could lead to the ports reopening early Wednesday.

The ILWU said Tuesday that the PMA already has put in an order for workers for an evening shift Tuesday, but a PMA spokesman denied that was the case.

Where ports reopen, serious questions will remain about when containers of goods and foods, automobiles and bulk items such as grain, coal and forest products will be able to start flowing over the docks at a normal pace. PMA CEO Joseph Miniace estimated that it will take at least six weeks to work through the backlog of freight that has built up, estimating that union members work at normal levels of productivity. But it is somewhere between uncertain and unlikely that such "normal" productivity levels will be achieved.

PMA had accused the ILWU of waging work slowdowns, which management said amounted to union requests to have a "strike with pay." While the union has continually denied that accusation, it was the allegation of slowdowns that prompted PMA to lock out the union for 38 hours on Sept. 27. After reopening the ports briefly on Sept. 29, PMA said the union again engaged in slowdowns and locked out the union indefinitely on that evening.

Which side is at fault in the dispute that's closed down the West Coast ports?
  Union longshoremen
  Other businesses

Union officials, while denying a slowdown, say that the extra volume of freight will create safety problems that will slow work at the ports, and that their members will not be forced into a speed-up of work to deal with the lockout-created backlog.

Even if the union and rank and file members cooperate fully with the court order, there is not enough labor available to work all the ships waiting to enter the ports, said Don Wylie, managing director of maritime services for the Port of Long Beach. Wylie said normal flows of work allow some staggering of work as ships come and go to his port's 40 berths.

"They all won't be able to come in and start working right away. They'll be worked as labor is available," he said. "Even under normal circumstances this time of year it's not unusual to have some labor shortages because of peak season."

The trucks and railroads also will have equipment problems that will slow their ability to carry the freight to and from the ports, according to John Bromley, spokesman for Union Pacific, the nation's largest railroad.

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"The expectation is there will be a huge flood of trains, and that is not going to happen," said Bromley, whose railroad has estimated that it has lost between $4 million and $5 million a day during the dispute. "We have 55 trains and crews waiting to go in Southern California, but as we get this thing rolling out, we have to control it pretty carefully so we don't have all the crews and equipment on the wrong end of the railroad."

A judge's order to reopen the ports will put the union and management under terms of the expired labor agreement during the cooling-off period, giving both sides the right to appeal grievances to an arbitrator.

There also are supposed to be further contract talks during that time, but the only thing that everyone agrees upon is that the two sides are far from an agreement. If no tentative agreement is reached in the first two months, the National Labor Relations Board will conduct a secret ballot vote among union rank and file on the PMA's last contract offer. The PMA is hoping it might win approval of its offer despite opposition of union leadership, while union officials insist they are representing membership's demands in negotiations.

The key point of contention is PMA's demand for the greater use of technology to download data collected by shipping companies and their customers directly into computers at the ports, rather than have them keyed in by hand by union-represented clerks.

The PMA says it needs the technology in order to handle the expected increase in trade at the ports and that it will give job guarantees to current union members. The union wants more guaranteed staffing levels and jurisdiction over some additional work, which PMA has been unwilling to grant.

In Washington, the port dispute will be the subject of a House committee hearing Tuesday, as the House Education and Workforce Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations will hear testimony from industries affected by the labor dispute, and consider whether the Taft-Hartley Act is the most effective way to deal with port labor disputes in the future.  Top of page

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