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IN THE NEWS - October 5, 2002: US West Coast Ports Shut Down - 2002-10-05

This is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program In The News.

A labor dispute in the United States closed twenty-nine ports along the West Coast at the beginning of this week. The ports are extremely important to the economy. About three-hundred-thousand-million dollars worth of goods pass through them every year. Half of all American imports and exports pass through the West Coast ports. Financial experts say the closings cost the United States economy as much as one-thousand-million dollars a day.

The Pacific Maritime Association ordered the closings. It represents West Coast shipping companies and port operators. It says port workers had been purposely and illegally slowing operations. The port owners say they would not continue to pay the workers if they were not going to work at full production levels.

The men and women who work at the ports are called longshoremen or dockworkers. Some of the workers load and unload ships. Others carry out administrative duties. The workers belong to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, a powerful labor group. The shutdown of the ports forced more than ten-thousand dockworkers to stop working.

The union denies that its members had purposely slowed their work. It says that workers were simply following safety rules and other work terms more closely than in the past. Union officials say they ordered the workers to do so after the deaths of five longshoremen this year.

The longshoremen’s union and the port operators have been trying to negotiate a new labor agreement since May. The last work agreement ended in July. Both sides say there is one major disagreement blocking the agreement. It is a dispute over the possible use of new technology that would speed the movement of goods. The port operators say the technology is needed for their businesses to compete fairly. But, the union says the technology threatens the jobs of its workers.

The closings of the ports caused more than one-hundred huge ships to wait near the West Coast of the United States. Most of the ships are too large to travel on the Panama Canal to get to East Coast ports. The ships are filled with millions of containers of goods from Asia. These include cars, electronics, sports goods, clothes and food for American stores. The ships also carry parts needed for building automobiles, computers, machinery and many other products.

Some companies are considering shipping some goods by air. However, that costs about four times more than transport by sea.

On Thursday, a federal labor official began meeting with representatives of the Pacific Maritime Association and the Longshore and Warehouse Union. They are trying to settle the dispute.

This VOA Special English program In The News was written by Caty Weaver. This is Steve Ember.