- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 9, 2002

A federal judge last night approved President Bush's request under the Taft-Hartley Act to reopen West Coast ports, ending a 10-day labor lockout that has cost the fragile U.S. economy from $1 billion to $2 billion a day.
Three hours after Justice Department officials filed documents in a San Francisco federal court, Judge William Alsup agreed to impose, under the Taft-Hartley Act, an 80-day "cooling-off period" in the dispute.
"This dispute between management and labor cannot be allowed to further harm the economy and force thousands of working Americans from their jobs," Mr. Bush said in directing the Department of Justice to ask a federal court in California to order the ports open.
The Pacific Maritime Association, the shippers' group, closed 29 ports in California, Oregon and Washington late last month, saying the union slowed work during contract talks. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union said it had merely made sure its 10,500 workers were following safety rules.
The first president since 1978 to intervene, under the Taft-Hartley law, in a labor dispute, Mr. Bush faced down a powerful labor union in the heat of a tumultuous election season. Democrats hope that the use of the 1947 law, which labor reviles, will energize angry union members to vote in the elections next month.
The court-ordered cooling-off period will keep the ports open during the crucial Christmas season, when retailers rely on imports to stock their shelves.
Workers would need eight to nine weeks after the ports open to clear the cargo backlog, Joe Miniace, the chief executive of PMA, told reporters in San Francisco after Mr. Bush's decision.
Businesses nationwide from retailers to farmers to manufacturers complained that they were starting to feel squeezed by the shutdown and sought the White House's help to end the stalemate. About 200 ships are anchored in the Pacific Ocean, waiting to have their cargo unloaded, while piles of containers have stacked up at ports from Seattle to San Diego.
Mitsubishi Motors Corp. said it plans to stop production at an Illinois auto plant today because of a parts shortage. Dole Food Co. sued shipping companies to retrieve 8 million pounds of bananas at the Port of Los Angeles.
The shippers and union are far apart in negotiating a new contract for the workers, whose deal expired July 1. Management wants to introduce technologies to automate many port operations, which would make some manual jobs obsolete. Union negotiators want bigger pensions, no layoffs and unionization of any workers who would operate the new technologies.
Longshoremen average annual salaries of nearly $100,000. Clerks who track cargo make about $120,000. Foremen make about $157,000.
Shipping companies and terminal operators refused to reopen the docks after locking out workers 10 days ago. Their refusal forced the Bush administration to seek the court's help.
Democrats hope Mr. Bush's intervention will energize organized labor, traditionally a Democratic ally, just four weeks before midterm elections. Democratic candidates depend on heavy turnout from union workers.
"No president has ever been on this side of management this overtly," said Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO labor federation.
National Retail Federation spokesman Craig Shearman joined U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Tom Donohue in praising Mr. Bush's move. "There are hundreds of ships waiting in those ports with goods that retailers need unpacked and delivered to distribution centers today," Mr. Shearman said.
Democrats on Capitol Hill, however, were critical.
"In recent weeks, President Bush's threat to invoke Taft-Hartley has emboldened management to shut down the ports 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," said House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said via a spokesman: "The administration is undermining the rights of America's workers. The heavy-handed remedy of Taft-Hartley intervention is not needed to get the ports open."
The petition filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in San Francisco was signed by five of Mr. Bush's Cabinet secretaries. Mr. Bush wants the court to require work at the ports to "resume at a normal pace."
"After a lot of discussions, we have been unable to bring the two parties together. Therefore, stronger action is required," Mr. Bush said. "Because the operation of Western ports is vital to our economy and to our military, I have determined that the current situation imperils our national health and safety."
Before Mr. Bush's announcement, there was "a flurry of activity" by negotiators, Mr. Miniace said, including a government proposal for a 30-day contract extension that was rejected by shippers. The shipping companies had proposed a 90-day extension, which the union turned down.
The cooling-off period doesn't end the standoff. After the 80 days are over, workers can go on strike or shippers can lock them out again.
"I expect both sides to put the concerns of our national health and safety first and work in good faith to resolve their differences as quickly as possible," Mr. Bush said, with Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman and Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta at his side.
Mr. Bush made his decision after an inquiry board handpicked by the White House reported yesterday that the standoff was unlikely to end soon. "We have no confidence that the parties will resolve the West Coast ports dispute within a reasonable time," the panel declared.
The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 invoked yesterday and was passed by a Republican-controlled Congress over the veto of President Truman.
This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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