West Coast Port Closures Threaten Lean Manufacturers

By Agence France-Presse Hopes of a quick end to a crippling closure of all U.S. West Coast ports faded Oct. 2 as talks between feuding shippers and dockers were canceled, leaving the main U.S. trade gateway idle. Scores of goods-laden ships and trucks queued outside the 29 ports that have been shut since Sept. 29 when the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines, locked out workers for allegedly staging a go-slow strike. But scheduled talks between longshoremen and industry officials aimed at ending the standoff that is costing the U.S. economy around $1 billion dollars a day were abruptly canceled amid union fury that industry representatives turned up at a mediation session Tuesday accompanied by armed guards. The industry officials said in a statement they had "good reason" for hiring security guards and stressed that the two guards were not in the room during the meeting. "The talks today [Oct. 2] between us and the shippers have been canceled," said Jeremy Prillwitz of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union. "Union officials are however meeting with the federal mediator, and we hope we will be able to get the talks with the PMA back on track." Meanwhile, as the two sides squabbled, hundreds of millions of dollars of goods piled up at ports in a move that analysts fear could help tip the fragile U.S. economy back into recession. More than $300 billion in goods, or about 7% of the U.S. gross national product, pass through West Coast ports annually, much of it trade with the United States' closest partners in East Asia. Perishable goods, car parts that need to be delivered to factories just in time for production and Christmas holiday goods were stranded up and down the coast. "Reports today indicate that some lean-inventory manufacturers are close to shutting down production lines for want of imported parts," commented Jerry Jasinowski, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, Washington. "If this port shutdown doesn't end soon, the general economic effect will be staggering." The union's Prillwitz warned that even if the standoff were to end soon, it could take weeks to clear the backlog of cargo. U.S. President George W. Bush called for an end to the economically devastating shutdown, and analysts predicted that the government would likely intervene if the stoppage drags on. Hong Kong political and business leaders voiced concerns that a prolonged shutdown would damage the economies of Hong Kong and other Asian nations. The dispute comes after five months of failed contract negotiations between the shipping lines and the longshoremen. Union workers have been without a contract since July 1. -- IW staff contributed to this report Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2002

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