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Bush Seeks to Halt Port Lockout

October 8, 2002

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush decided Tuesday to seek a court injunction to reopen West Coast ports for an 80-day ``cooling-off period,″ intervening in a bitter labor dispute that has cost the economy as much as $2 billion a day, administration officials said.

The politically charged decision, which Bush planned to announce later Tuesday barring a last-minute breakthrough in negotiations, would mark the first presidential effort in a quarter-century to end a work stoppage under the Taft-Hartley Act.

Bush decided to order the Justice Department to seek the injunction after a board of inquiry hand-picked by the White House reported that the two-week-old labor standoff has no chance of ending soon, said two administration officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. They held out the barest hope that Bush’s decision to intervene might produce an eleventh-hour settlement.

The board’s brief report did not go into detail about the economic and national security impact of the shutdown, but it held out little hope for a resolution of the conflict.

A cooling-off period would keep the ports open during the crucial Christmas season, in which retailers are relying on imported goods to stock their shelves.

``We have no confidence that the parties will resolve the West Coast ports dispute within a reasonable time,″ the panel declared.

After a fact-finding hearing in which it heard from both the shipping companies and the unioni, the panel said, ``We believe that the seeds of distrust have been widely sown, poisoning the atmosphere of mutual trust and respect which could enable a resolution of seemingly intractable issues,″ the board concluded.

The trade-off for the Bush administration is that a court-ordered truce could energize organized labor _ traditionally a Democratic ally _ just four weeks before midterm elections. Democratic candidates rely on heavy turnout from union workers, and some presidential advisers fear Bush’s intervention will drive angry labor voters to the polls.

On balance, however, White House advisers welcomed the chance to head off a burgeoning standoff between the shipping lines and the union and perhaps ease concerns about his handling of the economy. Polls show a growing number of voters want Bush to spend more time talking about the economy than Iraq. His economic policies have either stalled in the Senate or have failed to jump start the economy. Now he has an economic cause to promote.

Businesses across the country have complained that they were starting to feel squeezed by the shutdown and pressed the White House to step in to help end the stalemate, which some analysts have estimated was costing as much as $2 billion a day.

The standoff, among other things, is causing Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing of America to run out of engines and transmissions, forcing the halt of auto production. Production will be suspended at the start of the first shift Wednesday, according to spokesman Dan Irvin.

However, workers will continue to report to the Illinois plant, which assembles the Mitsubishi Eclipse coupe and convertible, the Galant sedan, and the Dodge Stratus and Chrysler Sebring coupes. The plant produces 850 cars a day.

The lockout, if permitted to continue, ``will imperil the national health and safety,″ Bush wrote in his executive order Monday establishing the board.

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies and terminal operators, locked out 10,500 members of the longshoremen’s union last week, claiming the dockworkers were engaging in a slowdown.

The longshoremen’s contract expired July 1, although it had been extended several times before Labor Day. The sticking point in negotiations is whether jobs created by new technology will be unionized. The average full-time dock worker in the ILWU makes $80,000 a year. The most experienced foremen can earn $167,000.

Just hours after federally mediated talks in San Francisco collapsed between workers and management, Bush intervened and appointed the inquiry board _ a step rarely taken by presidents and the first such move in the case of a lockout.

``The ports are going to be open soon and this crisis we are in will be over,″ PMA President Joseph Miniace said.

But James Spinosa, president of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union International, said: ``The government, along with the corporate world, are trying to break unions.″

Historically, cooling-off periods have failed to permanently end labor disputes.

Eleven coast-wide dock strikes have occurred since the Taft-Hartley Act allowing presidential intervention was passed in 1947. In all of those cases the president sought court orders after convening an inquiry board, according to the Labor Department. But in at least eight of those instances, the 80-day cooling-off period failed to resolve the disputes and the strikes resumed.

``Experience shows that this simply delays the settlement process,″ said Michael LeRoy, professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. ``It does not end the dispute by any means. Typically what happens is the parties go back to their corners and stew.″

Jimmy Carter was the last president to seek to use Taft-Hartley to end a work stoppage in the coal industry in 1978. The court refused to order the 80-day cooling-off period but did order miners back to work under a temporary restraining order.

The number of cargo vessels stranded at West Coast docks or backing up at anchor points has risen to 200. Dozens more were still en route from Asia. Already, storage facilities at beef, pork and poultry processing facilities across the country are full _ crammed with produce that can’t be exported.

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On the Net: Pacific Maritime Association site: http://www.pmanet.com/

International Longshore and Warehousemen’s Union: http://www.ilwu.org/main.htm

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