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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Saturday, October 26, 2002

Dockworkers may face federal action

By Justin Pritchard
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — Federal prosecutors suggested yesterday they are prepared to take the West Coast longshoremen's union to court to enforce a federal order that dockside work resume at a "normal pace" at Pacific ports where a labor dispute had led to charges of a slowdown.

Since the docks reopened earlier this month following a 10-day lockout, shipping lines have said longshoremen are deliberately dragging their feet — and Department of Justice lawyers appear sympathetic to their claims. The union has denied the charges.

"We take seriously any allegations that those ports are not operating at an appropriate level of productivity," Deputy Assistant Attorney General Shannen W. Coffin wrote yesterday in a letter to lawyers for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Meanwhile, a federal mediator met yesterday with representatives for the dockworkers' union and the association representing shipping companies as contract talks resumed in the bitter labor dispute.

The involvement of mediator Peter Hurtgen stems from a federal judge's Oct. 8 order that 29 major Pacific ports reopen following the lockout by the Pacific Maritime Association that cost the nation's economy an estimated $1 billion a day. At the request of President Bush, U.S. District Judge William Alsup formally approved a "cooling-off" period until Dec. 26.

Hurtgen will try to untangle a series of knotty issues — chief among them, how to modernize the West Coast waterfront with new cargo-tracking technology that could cost union jobs. A meltdown at the bargaining table led to the lockout Sept. 29.

The two sides met Thursday and yesterday with Hurtgen for the first time in more than two weeks. While they talked, lawyers for the San Francisco-based union and shipping association were busy corresponding with the Justice Department.

Yesterday, the association sent a packet of statistics to bolster its earlier claim that the 10,500-member union had deliberately dragged down productivity by as much as 30 percent. The union filed a rebuttal Thursday with the Justice Department and said it would file supporting documents by Tuesday.

"They're just numbers," union spokesman Steve Stallone said, referring to depressed work rates the association said proved a slowdown. "There's no evidence backing it up. There's no way they can be independently verified."

Stallone said shipping lines and port terminal operators bungled the reopening and mismanaged the logistics that would relieve congestion and speed a return to normalcy.

He said the union's main gripe was that employers were seeking help from federal prosecutors rather than using the normal arbitration grievance process if they concluded longshoremen were showing up late or not working hard enough.

In a letter released yesterday afternoon, Justice Department prosecutors rejected the assertion that arbitration should be the first step.

Prosecutors also expressed displeasure that the ports weren't running smoothly.

"While a certain amount of inefficiency might have been expected in those first few days, we would expect that they (had) been sorted out by now," Coffin wrote. The government "will not tolerate interference with the court's injunction in this matter."

Union officials have suggested that the Justice Department and shipping association were coordinating the case to use courts to harass the union. Yesterday, an association spokesman rejected that notion.

"If it's gaining any steam, it's because we've provided substantial documentation, which is very compelling," said association spokesman Steve Sugerman.