- The Washington Times - Friday, October 4, 2002

LOS ANGELES Truck driver Juan Salazar doesn't know when he will work again and his money and patience are running out.

"I'm just waiting" he said, leaning against a battered gas pump next to the Port of Los Angeles yesterday. "I'm just sleeping and eating. That's all I can do."

Mr. Salazar is one of thousands of workers in California caught up in a battle between port owners and longshoremen, a dispute that led the Pacific Maritime Association to lock longshoreman and two related union locals out of 29 West Coast ports over the weekend.

That means that thousands of fully loaded cargo containers are sitting idle on the docks and on dozens of freighters tied up at the docks or lying at anchor off the Pacific Coast.

Until the ports reopen and longshoremen can begin moving those containers, Mr. Salazar and his truck-driving colleagues stand by helplessly and wait.

"We get paid by the load," he said, looking to survey the vast field of untended cargo containers inside the port grounds just a few hundred yards from Mr. Salazar's truck, but separated by a razor-wire-topped fence, locked gates and the occasional security guard patrolling inside. "If we don't work, we don't get paid nothing."

A federal mediator started talks with the two sides to try to end the shutdown, now in its seventh day. The contract dispute has slowed trade with Asia and shut a car plant in California.

Premium Standard Farms Inc. stopped filling Asian orders for chilled pork exports worth $1 million a week. Walgreen Co., the largest U.S. drugstore chain, said it isn't getting the Christmas supplies it needs. Union Pacific Corp. and Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. halted grain-export shipments to the Northwest.

"I'm appalled that this isn't seen as a national emergency at this point, both economic and security," said David Littmann, senior economist at Comerica Bank in Detroit. "All our goals of better, faster and cheaper are hit by this action."

The 29 ports of California, Oregon and Washington handle about $300 billion in cargo annually, dominated by imports of clothing, consumer electronics and furniture for retailers including Wal-Mart and Home Depot, and parts and components for car and computer makers.

The talks between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, representing 10,500 workers, and the Pacific Maritime Association resumed at an undisclosed location in San Francisco, union spokesman Jeremy Prillwitz said. The talks, the first with a federal mediator, focused on technology issues that the union has said may threaten jobs.

Around the normally bustling port in Los Angeles, the streets were eerily quiet yesterday. The backlog of trucks waiting to get into the locked gates was gone. Thousands were in the area for the first few days of the dispute, but most truckers had concluded by Wednesday that the dispute would last for days or weeks and went home.

Inside the grounds, cargo containers stacked as many as six high sat untended. The cranes that move cargo on and off freighters were locked in the upright position; at the docks were huge freighters, their decks stacked high with containers.

Meanwhile, dozens of container-laden freighters idled in the Pacific. The Los Angeles Times featured a large photo of a man surfing in front of a cargo ship waiting helplessly at the entrance to the port.

Around the port,only a handful of trucks moved on roads that should have been jammed with 18-wheelers.

At the entrances to the port, longshoremen and marine clerks picketed silently, carrying signs decrying "unfair lockout" and demanding a new contract. Many of the few cars and small trucks that passed by honked their horns in solidarity with the pickets, which prompted cheers from the workers.

The crowds appeared cheerful and orderly, but local authorities weren't taking chances. Marked and unmarked Los Angeles Police Department and California Highway Patrol vehicles patrolled slowly along the nearly deserted streets.

Although the pickets posed for newspaper and TV cameras, they refused to comment on the dispute. One worker waived an official instruction sheet from his union saying that all members were "ordered not to speak out to the press" during the sensitive negotiations.

"You don't want to say the wrong thing," said one maritime clerk union member. "You know how people are everyone's got their own opinion."

Workers said privately, however, they remain confident the dispute will be solved peacefully. Some said they expected to be back at work as early as today and certainly no later than early next week.

The workers expressed frustration, saying they had been setting a record pace in moving cargo in recent months. Even so, they said, the backlog would take days or weeks to clean out.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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