US: Dockworker Lockout Shuts Down West Coast
West Coast dockworkers and the shippers who employ them agreed to federal mediation Wednesday, providing a glimmer of hope in the bitter labor lockout that has paralyzed trade at 29 ports from Seattle to San Diego.
"We are impressed with the parties' commitment to reach a quick and fair settlement on these difficult issues," Peter J. Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, said in San Francisco. Hurtgen will host a meeting of the two sides today in the Bay Area.
"We hope this signals a breakthrough, and we look forward to discussing with the union the steps that will enable the ports to reopen," Tom Edwards of the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shippers, said in a statement.
As economic losses mounted from the lockout, pressure built for intervention from Washington. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein called for an immediate end to the lockout of 10,500 dockworkers, whose labor contract expired July 1.
"With our nation in the economic doldrums and at the brink of war, we cannot afford to have this dispute cause further damage to the economy," Feinstein said.
She also urged President Bush to invoke his power to force an 80-day cooling-off period for both sides by the end of the week if the shutdown continues.
BUSH WANTS PACT
Ari Fleischer, Bush's spokesman, said the administration continues to urge labor and management to reach an agreement "because the longer this goes, the more harm it will do to the economy."
Asked if Bush will bring longshore workers back to work, he said, "I am not in a position to speculate about what may or may not happen down the future."
The situation between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and its management counterpart, the Pacific Maritime Association, looked nearly hopeless Tuesday, when union officials stormed out of a get-acquainted meeting with the mediator, objecting to the presence of armed management bodyguards.
Wednesday's mediation agreement revived hope, although the union agreed to the discussion of only one issue: the introduction of new technology at the ports, including scanners and sensors and computer systems that track cargo and make ports more efficient.
The union wants any jobs the technology generates, as well as the remaining cargo-tracking jobs, to be guaranteed union positions. The maritime association has not agreed.
The deteriorating relationship between the two sides led shippers to lock out the union Friday, shutting the ports through which $300 billion a year in trade flows.
The employers said workers had engaged in a work slowdown that cut productivity in half. The union said members were simply working more safely because of a spike in cargo loads and the deaths of five workers in seven months.
Hurtgen said Wednesday, before the union had accepted his offer, that he knew he had to do his work quickly. He added, "I am confident this matter is doable."
Feinstein said the dispute "is growing in its economic impact on the coast and is now spreading" throughout the country. Calling the situation more serious by the day, Feinstein said it could hardly have come at a worse time.
The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents foreign and U.S. shippers that use the ports and negotiates contracts with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, has long accepted the idea of federal mediation.
The union has long opposed it, but union President James Spinosa said Monday it is a possibility.
That led to the meeting Tuesday with Hurtgen and the maritime association in Oakland, which ended before it began when the union accused the maritime association of employing intimidating tactics.
The maritime association brought about 20 representatives, plus two armed guards, to the meeting; the union brought five representatives.
The association refused to explain why the guards were necessary. The association's Edwards said there were "unfortunate reasons the PMA made the decision several days ago to employ a security detail for its lead negotiator," Joseph Miniace. Edwards would not elaborate.
The union insisted on limiting the federal mediation session to technology, leaving pension, salaries and other unresolved matters to the two sides.
Barbara Wood, regional director of the federal mediation service, said that is positive. "This is excellent news. That's the hard one," she said of technology.
Hurtgen said the presence of armed guards Monday was inappropriate and a breach of bargaining protocol. He added, "There is no need for and there will not be any armed guards in the vicinity of these negotiations. It is just unnecessary. When the government assists parties in bargaining it is not a security issue. There isn't any reason, good or bad, to have armed guards present in these negotiations."
He said the loss of a day in mediation was costly. "In view of the economic pressure that is building hourly on the West Coast, that hurt," he said of the collapse of the Monday session.
Said Hurtgen, "The parties realize, I realize, everybody realizes the pressure on the economy because of the shutdown of the ports. . . . We will leave no stone unturned in an effort to get an agreement here."
He said he will urge the parties to "put aside any personality issues and any other disincentives to bargaining and get them to bargain and find their neutral interests and resolve it as quickly as we can." He added, ''I cajole, I use a variety of communication techniques. It is a process of trying to find the neutral interests and marry them in compromises so that you reach an agreement."
Also Wednesday, Robert Parry, president of Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said, "The direct effects are very powerful in our state." Estimates of nationwide cost of $1 billion per day do not seem implausible, he said.
In a speech to security analysts, he said, "If this gets resolved immediately -- and I mean immediately -- then I think the impact on the national economy will be pretty minimal. But if shipments in and out of ports here are interrupted much longer, the drag on the economy would be more significant."
Sam Zuckerman of the Chronicle staff contributed to this report. E-mail George Raine at email@example.com.
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