Daily Breeze

October 12, 2002

AFL-CIO wants safety inspectors sent to ports

By TOBY ECKERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Stoking the debate over the pace of work at recently reopened West Coast ports, the AFL-CIO on Friday urged the U.S. Labor Department and state governments to send health and safety inspectors to the docks.

"The extraordinary backlog of cargo and congestion on the docks will provide fertile ground for controversies over whether deviations from what the PMA (Pacific Maritime Association) contends is a 'normal and reasonable rate of speed' arise from legitimate concerns over safety," John Sweeney, president of the union federation, said in a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. "By dispatching government inspectors to the docks, you can help take this issue out of play, so that the parties can concentrate on the hard work of negotiating a collective bargaining agreement."

Similar letters were sent to Gov. Gray Davis, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and Washington Gov. Gary Locke. California sent occupational safety and health inspectors to the ports of Los Angeles and Oakland on Friday, a Davis spokesman said. They will be posted today at the Port of Long Beach.

Sweeney's letters came three days after a federal judge, at President Bush's request, ordered a temporary end to a PMA-ordered lockout at the ports. The judge directed members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which is locked in a bitter contract dispute with the PMA, to work at a "normal and reasonable rate of speed." 

The PMA contends it imposed the lockout because the ILWU was staging a work slowdown. Labor leaders argue that a number of dockworker deaths at West Coast ports in the past year make it prudent to closely adhere to health and safety rules.

The debate has simmered since the ports reopened. If the PMA sees evidence of a slowdown, it can go to the federal court and accuse the union of violating the Judge's order. Union leaders bitterly opposed Bush's intervention in the labor dispute, saying it tipped the balance in the PMA's favor.

"The ILWU is committed to comply with the court's order. It is, however, also committed to work safely," Sweeney said.

A Labor Department representative could not be reached for comment.