Port Labor Fight Snarls Economy, Strands Truckers

Executing a rarely used labor law in October, President Bush ended a shutdown of West Coast ports that had stranded hundreds of long-haul truckers and idled thousands of drayage drivers from Seattle to San Diego.

The 11-day work stoppage, which began Sept. 29 when shipping lines locked out longshoreman over stalled labor talks and a work slowdown, idled thousands of workers and shut down plants across the country. By some estimates, the shutdown cost as much as $1 billion a day.

Dockworkers returned to the ports Oct. 9 after they were ordered back to their jobs by the federal government. Bush invoked a labor law from 1947 called the Taft-Hartley Act. The act has not been used in more than 20 years to end a strike or lockout, but Bush said it was necessary to avoid further damage to the economy.

Under Bush’s order, federal mediators will work with the two sides for 80 days while the ports remain open. If no agreement is reached, however, the ports could close again a few days after Christmas.

“The work stoppage is hurting our entire economy,” Bush said at the time of the order. “It is hurting truckers and rail operators who carry goods to other parts of America. It’s hurting farmers and ranchers and manufacturers, retailers and consumers who make, buy, and sell the products that pass through our ports.”

Port workers and shipping lines are battling over technology advancements at the ports. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union, whose members are among the best paid blue-collar workers in the world, wants any jobs created by technological improvements at the port to be union jobs. The Pacific Maritime Association would like to outsource such jobs. The two parties aren’t any closer after months of negotiations than when the union’s current contract expired earlier this year.

The work stoppage forced some truckers to cool their heels at the Port of Oakland. Nevada owner-operators Jim and Athena Shannon said they didn’t get much information during the shutdown and lost thousands of dollars.

“It’s easy to sit back and analyze this,” Jim Shannon said. “We’re familiar with both sides of the argument. But we’re losing money.”

The couple delivers meat weekly to the port, but couldn’t get unloaded when the shutdown began. They spent their time talking to other truckers at a makeshift holding pen, just yards from where they would normally unload. The Port of Oakland provided a parking lot for truckers and pulled in portable restrooms.

“We had to beg for bathrooms,” Athena said. “We’re not used to this lifestyle. We’re used to moving.”

John Gross, a company driver for Nebraska-based R.E. Monson, said his load of meat was idled along with fruit and nuts, all freshly harvested and headed for ports in Asia and the Pacific. “I’m losing about $150 a day sitting here,” he said. “We’re usually turned around in 35 to 40 minutes,” Gross said.

Gross said he didn’t expect compensation for the downtime.

During the lockout, Rick Southerland, an owner-operator from Spencer, Iowa, foresaw what would happen. He said he thought a presidential action would be needed to break up the labor impasse. “It’s going to take something (like presidential action) to move these people,” Southerland said.

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