WASHINGTON — The standoff between West Coast dock workers and shippers that has idled ports turned ugly Tuesday, as desperate retailers made pleas to the White House to intervene in the labor dispute that’s threatening the U.S. economy, including critical holiday season cargo.

The prospect of a negotiated settlement was quickly dashed in the morning, when both sides showed up for a meeting at the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service in Oakland. But International Longshore & Warehouse Union officials stormed out because they said officials from the shippers’ Pacific Maritime Association brought armed guards.

ILWU president James Spinosa in a statement said the incident is PMA’s way of "holding a gun to the head of the American economy…Now they move to aim real guns at us….We will never reach an agreement as long as the PMA acts as if it can force a settlement at gunpoint."

In its response, PMA referred obliquely to "unfortunate reasons" it needs to employ a security detail for its lead negotiator. PMA president Joseph Miniace, who "was not aware that the security detail had remained on the floor after escorting him to the place where the meeting was set to take place," a PMA statement read.

On Monday, the PMA had agreed to let the federal agency help settle the contract dispute, but the 10,500-member ILWU balked, although they later agreed to Tuesday’s meeting. Negotiations were set to start Thursday in Washington over the disputed issues, including how new technology might displace workers, but that has now been thrown into question.

Meanwhile, anxious retailers turned to Washington for help, pleading directly to the White House, while urging members of Congress to press President Bush to intervene. At Bush’s disposal is the Taft-Hartley Act that allows him to call for a 90-day cooling off period, which would trigger the reopening of the 29 West Coast ports.

However, Bush told reporters he’s not inclined to immediately jump into the fray.

"I urge both parties to use the mediator," Bush said. "We’re just going to have to get these parties to work through it, get back to work, open these ports up. It’s important for our economy to do so."But retailers want presidential action now. Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation, wrote Bush Tuesday asking for his "immediate action to reopen the ports."

"We cannot overstate the gravity of the current situation," Mullin wrote. "The West Coast ports handle a substantial portion of the nation’s trade, which accounts for one-quarter of U.S. gross domestic product. Their closure will deliver a serious blow to the U.S. economy, estimated at $1 billion a day.

"Retail operations work in a just-in-time environment. With the retail industry and consumer spending largely propping up a weak economy, the inability to get goods off the ships will quickly result in idling of distribution centers, closure of stores and layoffs of workers. U.S. consumers will also quickly see an impact as goods become unavailable and prices rise."

The ports have been idle since Sunday, when shippers locked out dock workers after several weeks of stalemate and work slowdowns by the ILWU. Cargo is backed up on the dock and full ships are unable to unload.

At the International Mass Retail Association, officials from member stores, including Wal-Mart, held a conference call in the late afternoon to strategize. During the day, IMRA members called and wrote Capitol Hill lawmakers and the White House asking for help in ending the stalemate.

"It’s getting to be an urgent situation," an IMRA spokeswoman said.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), said the President should intervene if matters don’t improve soon. The President invoking a cooling off period would be a "viable option" Feinstein said, "if there is not progress within the next week."

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D., Wash.), said her state’s economy is already hurting from the idle ports and that the President might have to act.

"All options should be on the table because, frankly, so much is at stake," said Cantwell, noting that the President "is going to hear from economic interest across the West Coast that something has got to be done."

Robin Lanier, executive director of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, with Gap Inc., Wal-Mart and Target among its members, questioned whether the ILWU’s balking at mediation is simply a contract maneuver."They just want to flex their muscle, but they should do what they did in July and extend the contract on a day-to-day basis until they go back to the table," Lanier said.

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