- The Washington Times - Friday, August 9, 2002

Union officials are warning that President Bush's threats to intervene in a West Coast port workers labor dispute has made a strike more likely.

The 10,500 port workers represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) are demanding wage increases and job-security guarantees that shippers say are exorbitant.

The dispute prompted the port workers to threaten job actions that could slow or stop the $260 billion a year in trade through 29 West Coast ports and devastate the nation's economy.

The Bush administration is exploring options to keep the cargo moving, including declaring a national emergency that would force an 80-day strike delay. The president also has considered using federal troops to replace striking workers.

The 1947 Taft Hartley Act allows the president to intervene in a labor dispute if it "imperiled the national health or safety."

Jimmy Carter was the last president to invoke emergency authority under the Taft-Hartley Act, when he tried unsuccessfully to end a 1978 coal miners' strike.

Negotiations are scheduled to resume Tuesday. White House intervention would occur only if the union decides to strike or engage in a work slowdown, administration officials said.

Because shipping companies know the federal government would intervene to protect them in a strike, they are not negotiating a new labor contract sincerely, said Steve Stallone, spokesman for the ILWU.

"They don't have any incentives to come up with any real deal," Mr. Stallone said. "Every proposal they have put on the table for the last three months has been a proposal designed to be rejected."

The ILWU is negotiating with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), a group representing 79 shipping companies, terminal operators and stevedoring companies.

The PMA denied Mr. Stallone's assertion that it was awaiting government intervention. The association is offering the union a contract that includes a 17 percent wage increase over five years, which the ILWU's leadership rejected.

"We think this was a very principled, very fair offer," said Jack Suite, PMA's director of contract administration. "We're frankly very disappointed the union didn't give us more consideration than it did."

A main sticking point in the negotiations is the shippers' demand to make ports more efficient with technology to handle projected increases in cargo. The ILWU is concerned the technology would eliminate jobs.

Unions and port officials said shippers could be forced by a job action to divert West Coast import and exports to East Coast ports, raising shipping costs significantly.

"If cargo's going to get diverted, it's got to go somewhere and shippers will find a port that can handle the cargo," said Eileen Denne, spokeswoman for the American Association of Port Authorities.

Mr. Stallone said, "Our problem with these negotiations is the Bush threats. These actions are inappropriate and arguably illegal. The ILWU has the right under the National Labor Relations Act to strike or do any other job actions."

His protests received support yesterday from the executive council of the AFL-CIO, which was meeting in Chicago.

"The mere threat of intervention is an unconscionable effort to bolster the [Pacific Maritime Association's] contract demands and threatens the legitimate collective bargaining rights of longshore workers," the AFL-CIO said in a statement. "On a larger scale, the threatened use of federal troops to determine the outcome of a collective bargaining dispute undermines the basic civil rights of the labor movement and all American workers."

Significant logistical obstacles await any West Coast shipments that would be diverted to the Port of Baltimore or other East Coast ports. Among them is the long trip around the southern tip of South America, added costs from an extended route from Asia and questions about whether East Coast ports have the required capacity.

"That's always an option," said Judy Scioli, Port of Baltimore spokeswoman. "It's very hard to gauge what the impact would be at this point."

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