By  on March 13, 2007

LONG BEACH, Calif. — Negotiators for dockworkers and port management are trying to avoid a repeat of the costly 10-day lockout in 2002 that shut down ports on the West Coast and disrupted shipments to vendors and retailers.

Although the pact doesn't expire until July 2008, a proposal is being floated to bring West Coast port management and labor officials to the table this year. The prospective talks, and the efforts to stave off logistical and financial havoc, were a focus of the Trans-Pacific Maritime Conference here on March 5 and 6.

The developments were viewed as a sign that the negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents port employers, might be resolved quickly. The association initiated the proposal, and union officials said they would respond after consulting members.

"Any work disruption must be regarded by both parties as unacceptable," Jim McKenna, president of the PMA, said in a speech to some 1,300 shippers, carriers, port workers, logistics providers, manufacturers and retailers, including Nordstrom, Charming Shoppes, Claire's, Dollar Tree Stores, Hennes & Mauritz, Limited Brands and Sears Holdings. "The relationship between the PMA and the ILWU has improved."

The stakes are high for the PMA and the 42,000-member West Coast dockworkers' union. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the 2002 lockout, which ended after President Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley law, both sides have heightened awareness about the importance of port issues.

"With scrutiny comes added pressure," McKenna said.

Any work stoppage at the almost 30 West Coast ports, including the nation's largest at Long Beach and Los Angeles, could cause severe damage to a domestic economy that suffered an estimated $15 billion blow from the 2002 action. More than $260 billion a year in trade moves through the pair of Southern California ports, along with more than 40 percent of the nation's cargo in containers.

Since 2002, imports from the trans-Pacific, most of which arrive on the West Coast, have taken a larger share of the U.S. total, hitting 73.5 percent in 2005, according to Port Import Export Reporting Service's maritime research service.

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