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West Coast Ports Shut Down in Labor Dispute

The Pacific Maritime Association, representing the international shipping lines and the sea terminal operators, barred union workers indefinitely from returning to work at the 29 main Pacific Coast ports after contract negotiations collapsed Sunday evening.

The shipping lines said the lockout would continue until the longshoreman’s union agrees to continue a contract that expired July 1, or signs a new contract.

Contract negotiations between operators and the union started in May, but stalled this summer over pension packages, worker benefits and the use of new cargo-handling technology, which the union fears could eliminate many jobs. The union’s 10,500 dockworkers are currently without a labor contract.

Operators first locked workers out Friday night for a 36-hour cooling-off period, charging that union workers were deliberately slowing down on the job. The terminals reopened Sunday morning, but the association said that slowdowns continued and reinstated the lockout by 6 p.m. that evening.

The affected ports handle about half of the nation’s ocean-going cargo, including imports of cars, electronics, clothing, housewares and sporting goods. Last year they received some $300 billion worth of goods, primarily from China and Japan.

When the operators shut down docks Sunday night, more than 30 vessels, carrying hundreds of millions of dollars of goods, were stranded off ports from San Diego to Seattle.

Officials from the PMA say union workers have deliberately slowed the flow of cargo and reduced productivity by failing to provide crane operators and misplacing cargo containers in terminal yards, among other things.

Association President Joseph Miniace said it would be less expensive to shut down the ports indefinitely rather than running the ports at diminished productivity.

“Make no mistake. This was a targeted work action by the union,” Miniace told reporters Sunday. “I will not pay workers to strike. I will only pay them to work.”

Representatives from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents some 10,500 dockworkers, denies doing anything to provoke Sunday night’s lockdown and blamed the shipping lines for causing the contract dispute.

“We have been a responsible union,” ILWU President James Spinosa said at a rally in Los Angeles Sunday.

Spinosa said the union was willing to accept the use of new technology on the docks as long as the changes did not mean fewer jobs for dockworkers.

“They have been outsourcing in many directions the work that is rightfully ours,” Spinosa said. “We embrace technology changes, but let’s do it together.”

The PMA says the port shutdown could cost the nation up to $1 billion per day.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the Bush administration was monitoring the shutdown, saying, “If it goes on for even a short period of time, it’s a problem for the economy.”

Peter Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, asked both sides to come to Washington, D.C., for mediation talks on Thursday, the service’s chief of staff, John Toner, told the Associated Press.

The Bush administration could invoke the Taft-Hartley Act in order to reopen the ports for an 80-day cooling-off period in case of an extended lockout. The last time the White House used the act to declare an economic emergency was in 1978, when President Jimmy Carter invoked it in an unsuccessful attempt to end a national coal strike.

Union leaders and port operators were scheduled to meet Monday afternoon in San Francisco.

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