Importers Want Federal Action in Port Labor Fight
By DAVID GREENBERG
With negotiations for a new three-year contract between ship companies and the union representing West Coast port workers apparently yielding little progress as of late last week, threats of a July 1 strike have nervous maritime officials calling for White House intervention.
The West Coast Waterfront Coalition, which represents importers but is not involved in the negotiations, has been lobbying Congress to pressure both sides to avoid a strike or port shutdown. As a last resort, the coalition wants Congress to pressure President Bush to invoke the Taft-Hartley Labor Act, which empowers him to obtain an 80-day injunction against any work stoppage deemed a national security threat.
“We’re trying to educate all the members of Congress on the importance of this issue both for the national economy and national security to get them to contact both sides to stay at the table and get the deal done,” said Jonathan Gold, the coalition’s treasurer. “Taft-Hartley is a blunt instrument and it’s kind of a last resort. We want to avoid (work) disruptions as much as possible.”
Importers, such as Walt-Mart Stores Inc., Target Stores Inc. and Mattel Inc., are growing increasingly nervous about open threats of a work stoppage by dock workers at the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and other West Coast locations if a new three-year contract is not reached by the deadline.
Since negotiations began May 13, the Pacific Maritime Association, which is the bargaining arm of the ship companies, and the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union have only publicly agreed on an arbitrator to settle on-site worker disputes, according to the coalition’s Web site.
“The union was pushing to get that resolved before sitting down and talking about the contract,” said Gold.
Both sides have agreed to a media blackout with only joint statements to be released to update the status of the negotiations.
“They’re starting to get nervous,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. “All of a sudden people are starting to recognize that July 1 is getting closer. There’s a huge fear of the unknown.”
The looming strike is the top issue affecting the international trade outlook for Southern California, according to a report being released this week by the EDC.
Locally, the 6,000 full- and 1,000 part-time dock workers would not be the only ones hit by a strike, according to the report.
Effect on economy
A strike or port shutdown would have ripple effects for 290,000 people in L.A. County whose jobs are directly or indirectly tied to the ports most notably local truckers, freight forwarders, terminal operators, customs brokers, retailers and manufacturers.
“If you had a strike, I think it would be short term,” said Kyser. “But for a lot of people, there would be real pain.”
Union and maritime officials concede that talks generally begin with lots of posturing and that most of the progress made as the contract expiration date gets close. The union has not staged a strike since 1971, when it walked off the job for more than 100 days.
But two factors have made this year’s talks the most contentious since the last strike.
The largest hurdle to successful negotiations lies in the PMA’s demand to computerize the container trafficking and worker assignment systems to make the ports run more efficiently and enhance security by monitoring containers’ contents more closely.
Although the group has acknowledged that technology will result in the elimination of some clerk positions, the PMA has promised to retrain those workers for other assignments and that all current dock workers will be able to keep their jobs until retirement.
However, the union is also concerned about saving those positions for its next generation of members and has received no commitment from the PMA on that issue.
Union officials have also failed to persuade the PMA to restore clerk positions that were lost over the past decade as the ports hired out-of-state people to track container traffic using computers.
“The problem here is that when you think about security, you are going to have to use lots more container tracking and monitoring technology,” said Steven Cohen, co-director of the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy. “To a certain extent it’s the same technology that applies to efficiency. It means that nobody is going to be able to avoid the issue of technology.”
Additionally, the PMA, which in the past has been criticized by maritime officials for giving up too much to avoid a strike, has vowed to shut down the ports if dock workers stage a work slowdown during negotiations.
Past slowdowns claimed
During the 1999 and 1996 contract negotiations, union members staged work slowdowns that lowered productivity by 20 to 50 percent per port, according to the PMA. (The union has denied the allegations.)
A strike would halt the $309 billion worth of cargo that travels through West Coast ports each year, including $200 billion through the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The impact of a strike on the U.S. economy would be $1 billion to $2 billion per day for the first few days and then get far worse from there as retailers’ and manufacturers’ just-in-time inventories dries up, according to the EDC study.
To ward off some of the hurt, importers began ordering their goods for the back-to-school and Christmas shopping seasons this spring a process that usually begins in July.
As a result, L.A. and Long Beach, the nation’s largest port complex, have been handling a sharp increase in imported container traffic.
Last month, the Port of L.A. saw imports increase to 258,026 twenty-foot equivalent container units (TEUs), a 22.5 percent increase over the 210,723 TEUs that came in during the year-earlier period.
The Port of Long Beach saw a 12.5 percent increase 227,953 TEUs last April from 202,574 TEUs in April 2001.”There is some efforts to bring in goods in advance of a possible shut down,” said Cohen. “The idea is to avoid risk. It means importers are taking the risk of a shutdown seriously. Obviously they are concerned.”
In looking ahead at trends at the local ports in the next year, the EDC study said that two-way trade value through the area should increase a modest 3.6 percent to $220.2 billion in 2002, assuming there is no prolonged strike. That’s below 2000’s record total of $230 billion.