Port employers and union leaders representing West Coast longshoremen returned to the negotiating table on Wednesday, three days after a breakdown in contract talks sparked fears of a crippling labor slowdown.
Employers say they will lock out the workers in the event of a work slowdown, which would in turn force a strike.
The Bush administration has threatened to bring in troops to quell a strike. The West Coast ports handle half the nation’s trade, worth more than $300 billion annually. Economists say a work stoppage could cost the national economy 1 or 2 billion dollars per day. (September is the peak month for imports from Asia, including Christmas merchandise bound for shelves of U.S. retailers.)
Meanwhile, Boeing’s three-year contract with the union expired on Monday. The company last week presented what it is calling its final offer, which included bonuses and raises. But it also angered the union because it contained rising health care costs and smaller-than-desired pension increases. The company also refused to guarantee jobs or job growth with production boosts.
Union members had begun voting to authorize a strike when federal mediators intervened and urged both sides to come to Washington. The director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service Peter Hurtgen wrote to Boeing and union officials, saying he had "determined that any job action threatens to cause a substantial disruption of commerce."
Boeing officials met voluntarily yesterday with the mediators, but committed only to explaining the contract proposal, not to reopening talks after three months of negotiations. Negotiators for the International Association of Machinists, which represents 25,000 Boeing workers are set to meet with the federal mediators this morning.
- Harley Shaiken, Professor of Social and Cultural Studies at UC Berkeley