Fighting on the docks...and fighting...and fighting

How long do you let two kids bicker until you slap them around (figuratively speaking, of course) and tell them to get on the program?

That seems to be the question on the West Coast these days, where dockworkers and their employers have been at odds for over six months now. And freight is backing up.

About a week ago a federal mediator entered the process. It doesn't seem to have helped, though. Last night the two sides issued dueling press releases.

The one from management accused the union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, of a slow down.

"The ILWU has crippled what were fully productive terminals in the Pacific Northwest and Oakland, and exacerbated a difficult congestion issue at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach by intentionally withholding dozens of essential skilled workers each shift for the past 10 weeks," the Pacific Maritime Association accused.

The union retorted that the PMA was mismanaging traffic.

"The PMA appears to be abusing public ports and putting the economy at risk in a self-serving attempt to gain the upper hand at the bargaining table, and create the appearance of a crisis in order to score points with politicians in Washington," the union insisted.

Meanwhile, the importers and exporters are in pain. Just check out some of the comments in the latest report of national manufacturing activity for the Institute for Supply Management.

 "West Coast port issues have greatly impacted our incoming materials. We are air freighting many parts from Japan and Asia to support production while parts sit at the dock." (Fabricated Metal Products)

 "West Coast ports are creating delays for imported goods." (Textile Mills)

 "The West Coast ports slow-down is really affecting deliveries of our Asian purchases." (Machinery)


Sticking points

The employer group suggested in its latest statement that the two sides were pretty close.

"To date, the ILWU and PMA have reached tentative agreements on health care and increases to pay guarantees," the managment group said. "That tentative agreement provides fully employer-paid health care benefits valued at $35,000 per worker annually. PMA also has proposed pay increases and pension enhancements."

So what's the remaining problem?

Neither side will specifically say, but cost-conscious port employers have always chaffed at union jurisdiction and work rules that reserve jobs for the union and limit attempts at automation. Remember, a good portion of these employers are foreign ship lines with operations throughout the world. They consider American longshoremen, making an average of $147,000 a year on the West Coast, very expensive.

Employers staged a lockout in 2002. Those 10 days cost the economy upwards of $1 billion a day by some estimates. The White House had to order the ports reopened. A recent study suggested another lockout would double those costs if it went longer than 20 days.

Would employers stage a lock out again? Doubtful, say observers. The game so far seems to be more about image, with each side trying to cast the other as the villain.

But with freight piling up and an economy in danger of losing momentum...it seems like both sides are playing the villain.