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A Stormy Port 

Wednesday, Oct 9 2002
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President George W. Bush’s court order opening the shuttered West Coast ports was either a good or bad thing, depending on whether you talked to the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) or the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). The order ended the management lockout of 10,500 dockworkers in 29 Pacific ports, but disappointed some local officials who said they felt an opportunity for a true settlement had been missed.

Fifteenth District Councilwoman Janis Hahn, who represents the harbor area, said she would be happy to see the ports reopen. ”But I am upset because I don‘t think we really needed federal intervention. And Taft-Hartley,“ the 1947 federal statute under which Bush acted, ”has really never solved labor-management disagreements.“

Hahn added that the ILWU had been ready to return to work under a 30-day extension of the contract that expired in July. ”This was four times longer than the week maximum extension proposed last Sunday.“ But PMA president Joseph Minace termed the union proposal as just a ploy ”to avoid Taft-Hartley.“

Hahn countered that she believed the PMA got the better part of the deal, by guaranteeing that the workers would have to put in 80 days of work during the injunction’s cooling-off period, during which time the issue is again likely to arise of how fast workers can safely perform their tasks. ILWU officials said they would resist efforts to get workers to speed up, although alleged intentional work slowdowns caused the lockup, the PMA says.

The ILWU counters that due to work-speed hazards, there were five deaths so far this year. Safety issues have been a sticking point in negotiations. Paul Rosenstein, an AFL-CIO national official, said there‘s a fear that, to clear a 10-day backlog of shipping, post-injunction port officials may seek a speedup that will increase the hazards of an already hazardous job.

But an even more important issue involves the future of longshore workers -- some of whom earn over $100,000 with overtime -- in an increasingly mechanized port environment.

”More important than wage or safety considerations is the idea that there should go on being longshore workers . . . the profession should not be abolished due to new technology. These workers here are fighting for more than just better conditions. They are fighting for the survival of their vocations,“ Rosenstein said.

Hahn said she realized that more automation must come to the docks. She observed that even if it does, ”If someone is using a Palm Pilot instead of a clipboard, I think that person ought to be a union member.“

The last president to invoke the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, which authorizes federal intervention in labor disputes, was Jimmy Carter, in 1978. The PMA-ILWU talks fell apart October 6 over issues that included the length of the extension of the defunct contract. A special federal board, convened in San Francisco under presidential order, reportedly found that the two sides were hopelessly deadlocked, and recommended the injunction.

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