Bush Seizes the Helm

President Bush had no other option than to seek a court injunction to reopen West Coast ports. The cost to the US economy has mounted to more than $1 billion a day – at a time when a snail-paced recovery already is causing job losses.

It wasn't an easy choice. He risks antagonizing unions right before an election. What's at stake, however, goes far beyond politics.

Preferably, port management and the longshoremen would have worked out their differences long ago. On the surface, this appeared possible. Just before Mr. Bush initiated the federal intervention, management made a generous-sounding offer. Later, the union was ready to accept a 30-day work resumption, but management, apparently wanting federal intervention to prevent work slowdowns, rejected it.

At the heart of the dispute is the longshoremen's suspicion that the shipping companies' real goal is to erode union power by outsourcing new jobs at the ports. Those jobs would come about if management moves ahead with plans to install technology that would electronically track shipments and do away with unionized clerical positions.

Port executives are right in trying to bring the docks up to international standards, and the union needs to accept management's responsibility in keeping ports competitively efficient.

This kind of confrontation has echoes of the antimachine worker rebellions of the early Industrial Revolution.

Things have become more civil since then. The 80-day cooling-off period sought by the president under the Taft-Hartley law can now be wisely used by both sides. The longshoremen should return to work without the slowdown tactics they were employing before the lock- out. And management should try to address the workers' reasonable concerns about a union role in the new technology. Mediators may be able to encourage that process and break down the animosity.

The issues here aren't bread-and-butter ones of wages and benefits. The longshoremen are well compensated. Rather, the issue is how their future workplace will be staffed and run.

While they're hammering out that future, all sides should keep in mind how the port closure has brought anguish to businesses, farms, and thousands of workers. This dispute needs to be settled promptly.

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