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West coast ports { October 9 2002 }

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West Coast Ports Ordered Reopened
Bush Paves Way for 'Cooling Off' Period

By William Booth and Mike Allen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 9, 2002; Page A01

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 8 -- Saying the nation's economy and security were at risk, President Bush today secured a court order to temporarily reopen West Coast ports and force dockworkers and their employers to continue negotiations.

Invoking powers of the Taft-Hartley Act not used since President Jimmy Carter broke a coal strike in 1978, Bush instructed Attorney General John D. Ashcroft to seek the temporary injunction in federal court in San Francisco. The injunction, granted tonight, ordered the ports reopened, ending the nine-day closure of the sea terminals.

U.S. District Judge William H. Alsup told both sides in the dispute to return Oct. 16, when he will consider imposing an 80-day "cooling off" period that would keep the West Coast ports open past the November election and the holiday season.

Dockworkers should be back on the job by Wednesday afternoon to begin loading and unloading the more than 200 ships idling at 29 ports on the Pacific coast. Shippers say the ports handle more than $300 billion a year in trade.

The decision to invoke Taft-Hartley bristles with political ramifications. White House officials agonized about whether to intervene because they knew labor leaders would cast them as tools of management, possibly erasing goodwill Bush has earned with an energetic outreach effort to selected unions.

By intervening, Bush runs the risk of riling Democratic-leaning union households in the run-up to the Nov. 5 elections, when just a few seats will determine which party controls the House and Senate. The administration also was pressed hard by the shippers and other business interests to reopen the ports, but the move clearly enraged organized labor and its supporters.

Union leaders decried the intervention as "outrageous" meddling in a labor dispute and a clear indication that the Bush administration was siding with management over workers.

Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, said the dispute on the West Coast is unique because the 10,500 dockworkers were not out on strike, but were "locked out" of the ports by their employers. "This just poisons the collective bargaining process," Trumka said.

James Spinosa, president of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union International (ILWU), said: "The government, along with the corporate world, are trying to break unions."

The shippers, as represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), maintain they locked the longshoremen out of the ports because they were engaged in a calculated work slowdown. "The ports are going to be open soon and this crisis we are in will be over," PMA President Joseph Miniace said.

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 ILWU is paid $80,000 a year. The most experienced foremen can make $167,000.

Speaking in a subdued tone, Bush stressed the economic pain of the port closures, stating the farm industry was losing a thousand jobs a day; that automotive plants were without parts and laying off workers; and that stores were not stocking their shelves for the holiday season.

"Americans are working hard every day to bring our economy back from recession," Bush said. "This nation simply cannot afford to have hundreds of billions of dollars a year in potential manufacturing and agricultural trade sitting idle."

Business groups blitzed the White House late last week with dire scenarios about the consequences for jobs and profits if port closure went past 10 days. "This is about more than labor unions and port operators," said Tracy Mullin, president and chief executive officer of the National Retail Federation, which represents about 1.4 million retail stores. "This is about whether American children will find presents under the tree on Christmas morning."

Mullin said that even if dockworkers go back to work tomorrow, it will take four to six weeks to move goods onto store shelves, "and that's cutting it close. If this shutdown is allowed to continue, we could face serious shortages of popular items."

Pressure from business peaked on Friday, when 20 to 30 industry groups -- representing retailers, agricultural interests, importers, exporters and others -- unloaded on one of Bush's economic advisers, arguing that a prolonged impasse would be catastrophic for the economy and particularly for the holiday shopping season.

R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said business groups believe Taft-Hartley actions have a poor record for resolving disputes, but said that concern was far outweighed by the ripple effect the closure was likely to have on the economy.

Commerce Secretary Donald L. Evans said in an interview that he is optimistic the parties will agree on a contract over the next 80 days.

Evans said the administration had realized for months that the closing of the ports would threaten the economic recovery. "It was a pretty easy call," he said. "When the president saw that it looked like these parties would not come together, he felt like we needed to get these ports reopened, and this was the way to do it."

Labor leaders counter that the longshoremen were prepared to return to work immediately for 30 days under their existing contract, an offer they say was made by a senior official in Bush's Labor Department. Union leaders said it was the shippers who balked.

Democrats echoed the complaints of labor. House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said Bush had "turned his back on the collective bargaining process," and said the expectation that Bush would intervene "emboldened management to shut down the ports."

Senate labor committee Chairman Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said the ports "might well have been reopened" if the administration had urged terminal operators to end the lockout. "Instead, regrettably, the administration appears to be siding with management and to walk away from the collective bargaining process, damaging workers and their families as well as our economy at a time of mounting economic distress," he said.

Allen reported from Washington.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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