Bush Asks U.S. Court to Open Ports
President Bush asked a federal court Tuesday to reopen West Coast ports and impose a cease-fire that would end a caustic 10-day labor lockout, which has cost the fragile economy as much as $1 billion a day.
“This dispute between management and labor cannot be allowed to further harm the economy and force thousands of working Americans from their jobs,” Bush said in a hastily arranged announcement outside the Oval Office.
Bush's politically charged decision made him the first president in a quarter-century to intervene in a labor dispute under the Taft-Hartley Act. His speech, which was moved up 15 minutes, coincided with an announcement by the dockworkers' union agreeing to an 11th-hour truce proposed by Labor Department officials to return to work for 30 days under terms of the expired contract.
Shipping companies and terminal operators had not agreed to reopen the docks, however, after locking out workers 10 days ago. Their refusal forced the Bush administration to seek the court's help.
“We needed to reopen the ports, and we needed both parties to agree,” said a White House official close to negotiations, who insisted the timing of Bush's announcement was not changed to scuttle an agreement. “We only had one side agreeing.”
The petition asked for an 80-day “cooling-off period” and was signed by five of Bush's Cabinet secretaries. Bush wants the court to require work at the ports to “resume at a normal pace.”
In papers filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, the Justice Department said an injunction should be granted because “the president of the United States has determined that the labor standoff between the defendants ‘has resulted in a lockout that affects a substantial part of the maritime industry.’”
The Justice Department filing said “the result of the ongoing lockout has been the halting of virtually all trade handled by ILWU workers on the West Coast. ... The continuation of the ongoing lockout at the West Coast ports threatens to imperil both the national health and safety.”
A court-ordered truce would keep the ports open during the crucial Christmas season, when retailers rely on imported goods to stock their shelves.
“After a lot of discussions, we have been unable to bring the two parties together. Therefore, stronger action is required,” Bush said. “Because the operation of Western ports is vital to our economy and to our military, I have determined that the current situation imperils our national health and safety.”
White House advisers welcomed the chance to deflect questions about Bush's handling of the economy. Polls show a growing number of voters want Bush to spend more time talking about the economy than Iraq. His economic policies have either stalled in the Senate or have failed to jump-start the economy. Now he has an economic cause to promote.
At the same time, Bush's intervention was expected to energize organized labor, traditionally a Democratic ally, just four weeks before midterm elections. Democratic candidates depend on heavy turnout from union workers, and some presidential advisers fear Bush's intervention will drive angry labor voters to the polls.
“No president has ever been on this side of management this overtly,” said Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO.
Bush encouraged the two sides to settle their differences before the cooling-off period.
“I expect both sides to put the concerns of our national health and safety first and work in good faith to resolve their differences as quickly as possible,” Bush said with Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman and Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta at his side.
Bush made his decision after an inquiry board hand-picked by the White House reported that the standoff was unlikely to end soon. “We have no confidence that the parties will resolve the West Coast ports dispute within a reasonable time,” the panel declared.
After a fact-finding hearing in which it heard from the shipping companies and the union, the board said, “We believe that the seeds of distrust have been widely sown, poisoning the atmosphere of mutual trust and respect which could enable a resolution of seemingly intractable issues.”
The administration was likely to prevail should it decide to ask a federal court to impose an 80-day truce, labor experts said. Just twice have courts denied such requests: in 1978, a court refused President Carter's request for an 80-day cooling-off period in a coal miner's strike, but ordered miners back to work under a temporary restraining order; in 1971, a court refused to intervene in a labor dispute involving 200 grain elevator employees.
“I would think that particularly in a time of war, they would not have that hard of a time” convincing the court, said Scott Witlin, a labor lawyer in Los Angeles with the firm Proskauer Rose.
Unions complained that the White House orchestrated the inquiry board's determination by appointing and flying in members to San Francisco even before negotiations broke down, while officials publicly said they were reluctant to intervene.
“I think it's tough to say they were reluctant,” said Trumka.
Businesses nationwide have complained that they were starting to feel squeezed by the shutdown and pressed the White House to step in to help end the stalemate.
Mitsubishi Motors Manufacturing of America announced Tuesday it was halting auto production because it had run out of engines and transmissions. Production was to be suspended at the start of the first shift Wednesday, although employees still were expected to report to work, spokesman Dan Irvin said. The plant in Normal, Ill., can produce 850 cars a day.
The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping companies and terminal operators, locked out 10,500 members of the longshoremen's union last week, claiming the dockworkers were engaging in a slowdown.