Cool off

October 09, 2002

LEAVING ASIDE the cross-claims in the high-stakes class warfare that brought West Coast docks to a standstill for the first time in 40 years, President Bush's much-anticipated move yesterday to use the Taft-Hartley Act to reopen the 29 ports was necessary.

But history strongly suggests forcing the longshoremen back to work for 80 days doesn't guarantee a solution to the negotiations -- and could even delay one. Resolution still must come from talks between the dockworkers and the Pacific shipping industry, as it properly should.

Taft-Hartley provides a cooling-off period for mediation and an end to the spreading economic damage from this 10-day lockout. The union argues the president is putting the government's weight so solidly behind management that good-faith talks are not likely. But the mounting losses speak to Taft-Hartley's purpose, and today that carries the weight.

The lockout's daily toll, an estimated $1 billion, underscores the growing globalization of the American economy. Half of all containerized imports and exports pass through West Coast ports, $300 billion worth of goods a year, and the impact of this shutdown stretches from California computer makers to Midwestern chicken farmers, from Northwest apple growers to East Coast auto plants.

Two hundred ships have been idled off the Pacific Coast, a backlog of several weeks. Toys, electronics and clothes -- October's the key month for Christmas shipments -- have been held up. In turn, mounds of perishable food exports are piling up in U.S. warehouses. All this comes at a terrible time for a nation with a deeply troubled economy, and one that may well be going to war in the near future.

In seeking a back-to-work court order yesterday, President Bush cast these ports as a national lifeline. Tending it are the 10,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, a mere shadow of its 1950s' membership of 100,000 but still the nation's strongest such body. The ILWU lost those jobs to technology, mainly containerization, and it converted those losses to $100,000-plus salaries, making its members the world's highest-paid blue-collar workers.

The technology wolf is knocking again at the ILWU's door -- shippers want to speed cargo-tracking with scanners -- and the union wants control of these new jobs. History is at play here; this union still rallies under the banner of a fist holding a grappling hook and the slogan, "Labor creates all wealth." Expect the longshoremen, once back at work, to work as slowly as possible.

Therein lies the problem. Taft-Hartley has been invoked 35 times (21 times by Democratic presidents) since it became law in 1947 over President Truman's veto. It has not been used since President Carter intervened in a 1978 coal strike. Its overall record is mixed -- and terrible for dock strikes. Most of the 10 times it has sent striking longshoremen back to work -- 1971 was the last -- strikes have resumed after 80 days.

Yes, this nation badly needs West Coast cargo moving in and out; it can't afford the bleeding from this dispute. But most of all, it needs the ILWU and shippers to reach productive agreement on modernizing these critical portals to the global economy.

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