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PMA ‘Cooling Off’ Time Adds Rancor to Dispute

LOS ANGELES — The industry reacted angrily to news late Friday that the Pacific Maritime Association was shutting down all West Coast ports until 8 a.m. Sunday morning, following a day of widespread union work slowdowns.<br><br>Ports were...

LOS ANGELES — The industry reacted angrily to news late Friday that the Pacific Maritime Association was shutting down all West Coast ports until 8 a.m. Sunday morning, following a day of widespread union work slowdowns.

This story first appeared in the September 30, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Ports were reopened Sunday amid reports that at some sites the work of loading and unloading the large cargo ships was slow in restarting.

“A plague on both their houses,” was the grim word from Robert Krieger, president of freight forwarder Norman Krieger. He called the 36-hour port shutdown “a nightmare” and said the action “could cause disruptions for weeks.”

Although the PMA billed the lockout as a “cooling off” measure, industry observers were skeptical that clearer heads would prevail today.

“This will probably just be the beginning of a huge mess,” said Bill Hogan, import manager of freight forwarder Phoenix International. “This isn’t going to help cool things off, just make them worse.”

The apparel industry is nearing the end of its big push to receive holiday goods. The West Coast ports, which together handle about $1 billion worth of goods daily, have experienced record levels of activity in recent weeks.

But on Friday, despite an existing backlog, workers dawdled and empty trucks belched exhaust for hours at ports, after the International Longshore and Warehouse Union released carefully worded statements advising its membership to “work safely in strict accordance with all provisions of the Pacific Coast Marine Safety Code.”

According to sources familiar with past contract negotiations, the union has used safety reminders — which call for 10 mile per hour speed limits, among other rules — as pretexts for work to slow to a crawl.

After enduring what it calls “strikes with pay” during previous labor negotiations, the PMA conducted productivity studies in order to quantify a slowdown. Representatives have repeatedly said the association would lock out workers in case of a slowdown.

The ILWU denies it has ever purposely slowed down work.

According to PMA data, a crane driver at the Oakland terminal moved three containers per hour, as compared to the three-year average of 30 containers per hour. At the Maersk shipping terminal, operations ran at 50 percent of typical productivity, according to the PMA.

ILWU president Joseph Spinosa called allegations of a slowdown “slanderous.”

“During the biggest speedup in ILWU history that coincides with a record number of on-the-job deaths [PMA] is literally adding insult to injury and making any progress toward a contract more difficult,” Spinosa said in a statement.

There have been five fatal accidents in West Coast ports in the past six months, according to the ILWU.

The “work safe” mandate came after talks about key technology issues broke down between the ILWU and the PMA, which have been trying to negotiate a new labor contract since May. The most recent contract expired July 1.