Published on Tuesday, October 8, 2002 by the United Press International
Bush Move on Ports Draws Mixed Reaction
by Chris H. Sieroty
WASHINGTON, Oct. 8 (UPI) -- President Bush's decision Tuesday to ask a federal court to reopen West Coast ports and impose a cooling-off period that would end a 10-day labor lockout was greeted with anger from labor unions, but was cheered by struggling retailers.
"It's an especially bad idea when carried out by a president who has tried repeatedly to limit -- and even eliminate -- the right of workers to join unions and bargain collectively," said Ron Gettelfinger, president of the UAW.
He added that the fact that a presidential panel was appointed Monday to investigate a complex labor dispute and released its findings Tuesday "does nothing to enhance the Bush administration's credibility as a truly neutral arbitrator in the matter."
"Dockworkers are legitimately concerned that the White House is preparing to team up with the Pacific Maritime Association to impose a settlement on the employers' terms," said Gettelfinger.
In a hastily arranged announcement outside the Oval Office, the president cited national economic health and safety as his reasons to impose the Taft-Hartley Act for the first time in a quarter-century. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter implemented the act in a coal miners' strike, but the court declined to issue the order. A court injunction was later obtained instead.
The decision directs U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft to seek a federal court order to put longshoremen back to work for 80 days while mediators try to resolve the dispute between the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union and the PMA.
The PMA locked out the union on Sept. 29 after employers claimed longshoremen were staging a "go-slow" labor action. The union denied the accusation. The contract between the ILWU and PMA expired in July, but both sides have been operating under short-term agreements.
In a statement, the National Retail Federation said the dispute between the ILWU and the PMA had led to hundreds of ships carrying hundreds of thousands of containers of merchandise just sitting in 29 idled ports in California, Oregon and Washington.
"This is about more than labor unions and port operators," said Tracy Mullin, NRF's president and chief executive officer. "This is about whether American children will find presents under the tree on Christmas morning."
A court-ordered cooling-off period would keep the ports open during the critical Christmas season, when U.S. retailers rely on imported goods to stock their shelves.
However, even if the dockworkers go back to work on Wednesday, both sides agree that it's going to take four to six weeks to move the merchandise from the docks to the stores.
"If this shutdown is allowed to continue, we could face serious shortages of popular items," Mullin said.
A wide variety of consumer products that are imported from Asia via the West Coast have been impacted by the shutdown, especially toys, consumer electronics, shoes, clothing and housewares. A University of California at Berkeley study has estimated the cost of the port shutdown to the U.S. economy at $1 billion a day.
"This is the first time in the history of the United States that a president has let an employer lock out workers in an extended quest to undermine the workers' union -- creating a phony crisis -- and then reward that employer's action with government intervention," said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka. "It is a tragedy with historic ramifications."
The Bush administration denied Tuesday that it had taken sides in the dispute.
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