As tensions over a new contract rise, labor and management at the ports aren't quite ready to sit down and talk things out over a cup of coffee.

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents 71 companies that move, unload and ship cargo at the L.A. and Long Beach ports, said last week that International Longshore and Warehouse Union members have begun taking coordinated coffee breaks in an effort to slow down productivity.

The union, on the other hand, has denied any coordinated effort.

"Coffee breaks are part of the culture just about anywhere you work," Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the ILWU, said. "Anyone including the ports that says you can't take coffee breaks is downright un-American."

Port workers have traditionally staggered their coffee breaks in order to keep a steady pace of unloading. But the PMA has accused dockworkers at both ports of taking "unit breaks" all last week in order to choke productivity and gain leverage in contract negotiations.

Merrilees would not address the issue of whether workers were using the coffee breaks as a slowdown tactic.

The coffee break battle comes as the union and the companies at the ports are in talks to finalize a new labor agreement. The six-year contract, which was signed after an economically devastating 10-day lockout in 2002, expired on July 1. The union has rejected a request for a temporary extension of the contract.

The PMA claims that productivity at the port complex was down 20 to 30 percent during the day shift last week.

"This is something we're going to have to watch," said Steve Getzug, a PMA spokesman. "We have seen a definite slowdown."

A union spokesman denies that productivity has slowed.

"I don't know if they have guys in lab coats out there counting containers, but cargo is moving, people are making money and work is getting done at the ports," Merrilees said.

The PMA bases its estimates of productivity losses on the average time it takes to unload then reload containers on cargo ships, based on estimates from all West Coast ports.

"We unload a lot of ships at our ports, so we are pretty confident that we know how long it takes to unload and reload a ship," Getzug said.

APM Terminals, the largest terminal operator at the port of Los Angeles, has confirmed the PMA's analysis.

"The ILWU has sustained their unilateral slowdown against vessel operations in Southern California," APM Terminals said in a statement on its Web site. "Most stevedores in the port are reporting a 25 to 30 percent productivity reduction and container yards are becoming congested."

Specter of 2002

The concern over a potential labor slowdown arises from the specter of the 2002 lockout. The union had employed slow-down tactics during negotiations at the time and the PMA claims the ensuing port shutdown cost $15 billion as ships waited for weeks to unload cargo.

As strikes are the weapon of last resort in today's labor climate, slowdown tactics can be used as a sign of union resolve short of a work stoppage.

"Strikes used to be much more common than they are now," said Daniel Mitchell, a UCLA professor of management and public policy. "So nowadays, instead of strikes, we see unions use tactics such as labor slowdowns in an effort to put pressure on management to get a deal done."

The Southern California ports have handled more than 6 million containers so far this year. Ships bring everything from shoes to TVs for trucking to retailers across the U.S.

Merrilees of the ILWU said that a port shutdown due to a strike or a lockout is highly unlikely this time.

"We've been able to reach an agreement on health benefits that issue alone has sank so many talks in the past," he said. "There's good reason to be optimistic."

The latest economic forecast from the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. stated that the economic growth of the county would slow to a virtual halt if the ports shut down.

"It's a pretty gloomy picture," said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the LAEDC. "The housing market crash, problems in the financial sector and soaring prices for gasoline and diesel have severely hammered the state and local economies. They are on the brink of falling into a recession."

The report stated that growth in export activity was one of only a handful of bright spots for the county's ailing economy.

Merrilees said he was not concerned over the coffee break issue and believes a new contract is imminent.

"Folks are making a mountain out of a mole hill here," Merrilees concluded. "We're nearing the final stages here and we are confident a deal will be done soon."

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