May 01, 2008

Arbitrator steps in to avoid West Coast port slowdown

By ALEX VEIGA AP Business Writer
© 2008 The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES — An arbitrator on Wednesday ordered the union that represents dockworkers at West Coast ports to tell its members they must report to work on Thursday and not take the day off to protest U.S. military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A wide enough walkout could cause a slowdown at the West Coast ports _ the nation's major gateway for cargo from the Far East.

Coast Arbitrator John Kagel issued his decision after holding a hearing by phone with the employers' group, the Pacific Maritime Association, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, according to a document outlining the ruling.

The union previously asked employers to clear the way for members to skip out on the day shift to protest the war, but the employers refused the request _ a decision backed by the arbitrator last week.

Despite that decision, word continued to spread on the Internet in recent days of a May 1 walkout by longshore workers and details of protests, including a march in San Francisco. Thursday coincides with May Day, when workers traditionally celebrate the labor movement.

Employers went back to the arbitrator Wednesday, armed with accounts of dockworkers at ports in San Francisco, Seattle and other ports telling supervisors that they would not be showing up to work.

Kagel was persuaded by the employers' case, and declared that any unilateral walkout by longshore workers would violate the union's labor contract.

Union spokesman Craig Merrilees said the union was complying with the contract, but he declined to specify whether it had taken steps to order members to report to work as the arbitrator ordered.

"The decision by members to take a day off work on May 1 to protest the war is their right under the U.S. Constitution and it's about time that citizens stood up to tell the truth about the need to end the war,"
he said.

Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the marine terminal operators and ocean cargo carriers, accused the union of secretly encouraging members to go ahead with an illegal walkout.

"Staging a coordinated work action violates the waterfront labor contract and comes at a time when the union has pledged to not have any disruptions while a new contract is being negotiated," Getzug said. "Any disruption at the ports works against the interests of millions of Americans whose jobs are directly or indirectly tied to the movement of cargo."

Labor contract talks between the union and the employers began in March. The current six-year contract expires July 1.

Merrilees stressed that plans by some members to skip work Thursday was not related to the contract talks.

"This is not a part of the negotiations, which have been moving in a generally positive direction," he said.

The contract covers some 25,000 longshore workers at 29 ports in the states of California, Oregon and Washington.

Merrilees said it was impossible for him to estimate how many dockworkers might not show up for work Thursday.

In 2002, longshore workers across the West Coast were locked out for 10 days over a contract dispute. The shutdown cost the nation's economy an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion a day.

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