Shipping companies allege dock slowdown

Posted: Thursday, October 24, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- West Coast dockworkers deliberately are slowing the pace of work in response to a bitter labor dispute, according to documents shipping companies have filed with the Department of Justice.

The longshoremen's union denied the charges and blamed sagging productivity on the 10-day lockout by the association representing shipping lines and port terminal operators that ended earlier this month.

The records are pivotal because federal prosecutors could use them to take the International Longshore and Warehouse Union to court on allegations its members are violating a federal order that reopened 29 major Pacific ports after the lockout.

The 10,500-member union ''is playing games with the U.S. economy, and inflicting economic pain and hardship on scores of companies and their employees,'' said Joseph Miniace, president of the Pacific Maritime Association. ''Given the extreme urgency of keeping the goods moving through our ports, I cannot fathom why the union would deliberately take these slowdown actions.''

The two sides have clashed both on the docks and at the bargaining table, where a meltdown over a new contract led to the lockout. A federal mediator has contacted both sides to resume negotiations, a tough job given that both sides continue to trade accusations in the first two weeks of a ''cooling-off'' period requested by President Bush.

Since the docks reopened two weeks ago, longshoremen have worked 34 percent below the normal work rate in Oakland and 9 percent in Los Angeles/Long Beach, according to the association. Other slowdown rates include 29 percent in Portland, Ore., 27 percent in Seattle and 19 percent in Tacoma, Wash., the association said.

The figures compare the number of containers longshoremen moved on and off a vessel each hour at a particular port before the lockout with container moves since the lockout ended.

Miniace blamed deliberate undermanning and coordinated sick-ins. Association officials refused a request that they share a copy of the filing.

In a written response, the Justice Department acknowledged receiving the documents during the weekend and asked the association and the union to provide further information by Friday.

''As you know, these are serious allegations,'' Deputy Assistant Attorney General Shannen W. Coffin wrote in a letter dated Tuesday to both sides.

The allegations could land the union in trouble if Justice Department lawyers conclude the documents prove a slowdown that violates a court order to work at ''a normal pace.'' If that happens, the case could be heading for U.S. District Judge William Alsup, who imposed an 80-day ''cooling-off'' period to end the lockout that cost the U.S. economy up to $1 billion per day.

Alsup has broad discretion to sanction the union -- he could fine union officials or charge them with contempt of court.

That's unlikely, said a union spokesman, who added officials welcome the filing because it will give them a chance to debunk the association's charges.

''It's one thing to throw a bunch of numbers out in the press, it's another thing to go to court, where such things as rules of evidence apply, where cross-examination applies,'' said union spokesman Steve Stallone.

The association can't prove a deliberate slowdown, he said, ''not with all the complications that are going on.''

Stallone was referring to the gridlock on the docks -- congestion and chaos that the union has blamed on unsafe working conditions and disorganized terminal operators.

On that theme, a public relations firm hired by the union released a letter from five West Coast senators urging Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to assign full-time federal inspectors to monitor safety and health conditions at the ports.

''The extreme conditions on the docks created by the port shutdown make a hazardous work environment even more dangerous, and make it all the more important that established safety and health rules be followed and enforced,'' read the letter, which was signed by five Democratic senators -- Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer of California, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

The states already have sent extra inspectors to the dock terminals, but their jurisdiction does not extend to work on boats.

Whatever the cause, progress has been slow on the waterfront -- from Oct. 9 to Oct. 21, the overall number of ships in West Cost ports declined from 224 to 194.


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