SAN FRANCISCO — Negotiators for dockworkers and shipping companies toned down their antagonistic rhetoric after spending most of Thursday with a federal mediator who is trying to end the West Coast port shutdown that has staggered industries across the United States.
The stalemate caused by a bitter contract dispute has stopped all commercial shipping at 29 Pacific ports for nearly a week. But the standoff of the last few weeks seemed to have eased when dockworkers and the shipping companies emerged from one of their sessions.
“We’re working hard. We plan to be here for as long as it takes,” said dockworkers union president Jim Spinosa. “We’re here to get a contract, whatever it takes.”
Amid calls for emergency federal intervention to reopen the waterfront, the Bush administration continued to say it hopes the sides can settle their differences at the negotiating table.
Both sides said they thought the talks would last a while.
“We were told to bring our toothbrushes,” said Joseph Miniace, lead negotiator for the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines.
But the longer the association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union take to reach a settlement, the more the economic effects furrow through the wobbly U.S. economy.
“Every hour is another hour of economic harm,” federal mediator Peter Hurtgen said before Thursday’s negotiations began at a hotel here. “I think we all feel the pressure.”
Along the coast, 162 ships were either idle at the docks or have dropped anchor, according to the shipping association. Another 13 were due to arrive by Friday morning.
Food is rotting in cargo holds, railroads have halted grain shipments from the Midwest and already one part-starved auto plant near San Francisco has closed since the meltdown over a contract dispute led to a port closure that began last Friday and resumed Sunday after a six-hour attempted reopening.
The lockout hit the transportation and manufacturing sectors first, and is now causing increased concern in the U.S. agriculture industry, as evidenced Thursday by a sharp drop in wheat futures on the Chicago Board of Trade.
The economic impact of the work stoppage was accelerating and could be costing the U.S. economy $2 billion a day, said Robert Parry, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
That has led to mounting pressure on President Bush to intervene under the Taft-Hartley Act. Under the act, a president can block a strike or lockout for 80 days if the dispute will “imperil the national health or safety.” First, though, an inquiry board would investigate the issue, which could take several days.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Thursday the U.S. economy is at risk, but wouldn’t speculate on Taft-Hartley.
“The administration continues to urge labor and management to come together to get an agreement because the longer this goes, the more harm it will do to the economy,” he said. “The president is routinely informed of the status.”
The last time the government intervened in a work stoppage under Taft-Hartley was 1978, when President Carter unsuccessfully tried to end a national coal strike.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., is among the lawmakers who have appealed for Bush to order the ports reopened under those powers. Such pleas were echoed by the National Association of Manufacturers and American Trucking Associations.