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Bush Enters Port Lockout Dispute


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Bush enters port lockout dispute

President seeks to end work stoppage, says lockout ‘is hurting our entire economy’

Loaded cargo ships rest at anchor in the San Francisco Bay as the West Coast port shutdown continues stretched into Tuesday.



WASHINGTON, Oct. 8 — President George W. Bush directed government lawyers Tuesday to go to court to seek a temporary cease-fire in a bitter 10-day labor dispute that has closed West Coast ports and cost the fragile economy as much as $2 billion a day.

“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.

The politically charged decision marks the first presidential move in a quarter-century to intervene in a labor dispute under the Taft-Hartley Act. Justice Department lawyers were preparing court papers to seek the reopening of the ports.

A court-ordered cooling-off period, which would last 80 days, would keep the ports open during the crucial Christmas season, in which retailers rely on imported goods to stock their shelves.

Bush announced the decision after a flurry of behind-the-scenes negotiations intended to head off the action.

“After a lot of discussions, we have been unable to bring the two parties together. Therefore, stronger action is required,” Bush said. “Because the operation of Western ports is vital to our economy and to our military, I have determined that the current situation imperils our national health and safety.”

The longshoremen’s union at 29 West Coast ports agreed Tuesday to return to work under a 30-day contract extension. But it was unclear whether shipping lines were ready to accept the federally brokered deal.

The trade-off for the Bush administration is that a favorable court decision could energize organized labor, traditionally a Democratic ally, just four weeks before midterm elections. Democratic candidates rely on heavy turnout from union workers, and some presidential advisers fear Bush’s intervention will drive angry labor voters to the polls.

Nevertheless, White House advisers welcomed the chance to deflect questions about Bush’s handling of the economy. Polls show a growing number of voters want Bush to spend more time talking about the economy than Iraq. His economic policies have either stalled in the Senate or have failed to jump-start the economy. Now he has an economic cause to promote.

Bush told both sides that he expected them to settle their differences before the cooling off period.

“I expect both sides to put the concerns of our national health and safety first and work in good faith to resolve their differences as quickly as possible,” Bush said with Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and several other Cabinet members.

Bush made his decision after an inquiry board hand-picked by the White House reported that the standoff was unlikely to end soon.

After a fact-finding hearing in which it heard from the shipping companies and the union, the board said, “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.”

Just twice have courts denied such cooling-off requests: in 1978, a court refused President Carter’s request in a coal miner’s strike, but ordered miners back to work under a temporary restraining order; in 1971, a court refused to intervene in a labor dispute involving 200 grain elevator employees.

West Coast ports were shut down Sunday, Sept. 29 after port operators blamed dockworkers for a months-long campaign of work slowdowns. The lockout, which is costing the national economy $2 billion a day according to some estimates, will lead to even more serious economic repercussions if ports remain closed. The ports handle half of the nation’s imports and exports.

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Who are the players?

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union: The 10,500-member union controls all dock work on the West Coast, including crane operations. Annual pay for members ranges from $80,000 to $158,000. The ILWU has been working without a contract with the ports since July 1.

Pacific Maritime Association: The group represents West Coast port operators and international shipping lines. The association closed the ports on Sept. 30 after saying that an ILWU work slowdown was paralyzing operations.

Where is the lockout?

The lockout covers all 29 ports operated by the Pacific Maritime Association along the West Coast. The ports handle $300 billion in cargo a year and include Long Beach, Los Angeles, Seattle and Oakland. Many of the ports are designed to accommodate massive container ships from Asia. The ships are too large to be diverted through the Panama Canal.

Why is there a lockout?

The lockout comes after the ILWU engaged in several months of work slowdowns. Longshoremen refused to work overtime and created schedules in which workers skilled in one job were assigned to different jobs. The slowdown stems from disagreements between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association over pensions and benefits as well as the association’s desire to use new technologies such as cargo scanners to speed cargo handling. The association says that new technology is required to reduce bottlenecks. The ILWU has said it is willing to negotiate if a new contract sets minimum port staffing levels and enables the union to have jurisdiction over all new technology jobs. The association has resisted those demands.

What’s next?

President Bush has ordered a 3-person panel to gather data and determine how the port labor dispute is impacting the U.S. economy. Bush is expected to reopen the ports by imposing a mandatory "cooling-off" period, a tactic last used in 1978 during a coal strike. The last major dispute at West Coast ports was a 134-day longshoremen-led strike in 1971. The Pacific Maritime Association says it will open its ports when the ILWU agrees to resume work. The ILWU refuses to consider any options until the lockout ends.

“I would think that particularly in a time of war, they would not have that hard of a time” convincing the court, said Scott Witlin, a labor lawyer in Los Angeles with the firm Proskauer Rose.

Unions complained that the White House orchestrated the inquiry board’s determination by appointing and flying in members to San Francisco even before negotiations broke down, while officials publicly said they were reluctant to intervene.

“I think it’s tough to say they were reluctant,” said Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO.

Businesses nationwide have complained that they were starting to feel squeezed by the shutdown and pressed the White House to step in to help end the stalemate.

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 International Longshore and Warehouse Union makes $80,000 a year. The most experienced foremen can earn $167,000. Federally mediated talks in San Francisco broke down Sunday.

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

Eleven coast-wide dock strikes have occurred since the 1947 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which allows presidential intervention. 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.

© 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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