Western ports are ordered to reopen

President asks court to impose 80-day halt on damaging lockout

October 09, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - President Bush intervened yesterday in the 11-day shutdown of 29 West Coast ports, successfully seeking a court order to halt the employers' lockout of 10,500 longshoremen because the operation of the ports is "vital to our economy and to our military."

Judge William Alsup of U.S. District Court in San Francisco issued a temporary injunction last night ordering longshoremen to report to work immediately.

In seeking to suspend the shutdown for 80 days, Bush became the first president to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act's emergency provisions since President Nixon sought to stop a longshoremen's strike in 1971.

Alsup said he would conduct a hearing in a week on whether to grant a full 80-day injunction. If he grants it, the labor dispute would be pushed past the Nov. 5 election, past the Christmas buying season, and perhaps past the start of military action against Iraq.

Bush said he was worried about the movement of military supplies. The Pentagon often uses commercial shipping lines to send supplies and equipment overseas.

The president sought the court order after Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao was unable to negotiate a 30-day contract extension to reopen the ports. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union agreed to a 30-day extension, but the employers' group rejected an extension, saying it feared that the longshoremen would engage in a renewed work slowdown.

Bush's aides said he was reluctant to act but feared that a continuation of the lockout would undermine a sputtering economic recovery.

"This dispute between management and labor cannot be allowed to further harm the economy and force thousands of working Americans from their jobs," Bush said in a hastily called announcement to reporters in the Rose Garden.

On Sept. 29, the Pacific Maritime Association, a group of port operators and shipping lines, shut the ports and locked out the longshoremen, accusing the workers of engaging in a job slowdown. Union officials said the workers were merely observing safety precautions because five longshoremen died on the job this year.

For the White House, yesterday's decision was a difficult political calculation.

With union leaders opposed to a cooling-off period, some of Bush's political advisers feared that the move might mobilize union members against Republican candidates, less than a month from midterm elections. Several unions that Bush has courted say that such injunctions undercut labor's power in contract disputes.

"We're extremely disappointed," said Bret Caldwell, spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the union wooed most vigorously by Bush.

But some White House officials said that labor itself was divided on how to deal with the issue. "With every passing day, as the harm to the economy increased, the president leaned more and more in this direction," one senior administration official said. "It buys some time, it gets us past Christmas."

Moreover, there is a chance Bush might reap some political benefit. Many business groups lobbied for the president to seek an injunction, and they have sounded the alarm about the shutdown's potential to damage the economy.

Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation, said, "The president has shown political courage and leadership. He has put national security and the economy first."

Bush's announcement came just one day after he appointed a board of inquiry, led by former Labor Secretary William E. Brock, to report to him about the damage caused by a shutdown of ports that handle $300 billion in cargo each year.

Administration officials said it was important for Bush to move quickly to prevent further economic damage - they cited economists who say the port shutdown is costing the economy $1 billion to $2 billion a day.

The board of inquiry gave the president a report yesterday morning that concluded, "We have no confidence that the parties will resolve the West Coast ports dispute within a reasonable time."

Administration, management and union officials said Eugene Scalia, the Labor Department's solicitor, contacted the heads of the union and the Pacific Maritime Association, the port operators' group, yesterday morning to propose a 30-day extension.

Several union leaders praised that approach because it showed the administration was seeking to heed union concerns and avoid invoking Taft-Hartley.

One official involved in the negotiations said the union agreed to a 30-day contract extension, but the maritime association rejected it.

Joseph Miniace, president of the San Francisco-based association, said in a telephone interview that he could not accept such an extension when, in his view, the longshoremen were threatening to work at a slow pace when they came back.

"A 30-day extension, while we believe it would be a good short-term solution, clearly does not answer the questions of what happens in the long term," Miniace said. "We have been negotiating for five months without a solution."

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