U.S. West Coast dockworkers returned to their jobs under court order Wednesday and were greeted with a backlog of cargo that built up over 10 days of a labor lockout. The ports were shut down Sunday, Sept. 29 after port operators alleged that dockworkers were staging a months-long campaign of work slowdowns. The lockout at 29 ports from California to Washington state in the U.S. cost the economy upwards of U.S. $1 billion a day, some economists estimate. The ports handle half of the nation’s imports and exports and have already had a ripple effect on businesses, preventing department stores and groceries from getting needed imports and forcing the closure of auto factories.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) controls all dock work on the West Coast, and has been working without a contract with the ports since July 1. The Pacific Maritime Association represents West Coast port operators and international shipping lines. The association closed the ports on Sept. 29 after saying that an ILWU work slowdown was paralyzing operations. The lockout covered all 29 ports operated by the Pacific Maritime Association along the West Coast. The ports handle $300 billion in cargo a year. Many of the ports are designed to accommodate massive container ships from Asia. The ships are too large to be diverted through the Panama Canal.
The lockout comes after the ILWU engaged in several months of work slowdowns. Longshoremen refused to work overtime and created schedules in which workers skilled in one job were assigned to different jobs. The slowdown stems from disagreements between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association over pensions and benefits as well as the association’s desire to use new technologies such as cargo scanners to speed cargo handling. The association says that new technology is required to reduce bottlenecks. The ILWU has said it is willing to negotiate if a new contract sets minimum port staffing levels and enables the union to have jurisdiction over all new technology jobs. The association has resisted those demands.
A judge has issued an order backing President Bush’s request to end the shutdown at West Coast ports and impose an 80-day cooling down period under the Taft-Hartley Act. The Taft-Hartley Act has not been imposed by a president since 1978, when Jimmy Carter used it to halt a coal strike. The last major dispute at West Coast ports was a 134-day longshoremen-led strike in 1971. If no agreement in the West Coast port dispute is reached in 80 days, the port operators could resume the lockout or dockworkers could strike. (Associated Press)
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