Talks aimed at ending the labor dispute that has closed West Coast ports came to an abrupt halt yesterday.
The dispute is between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
"Frustration and distrust have been running high on both sides, and tensions boiled over" at yesterday's meeting in Oakland reports the Los Angeles Times.
According to the L.A.Times report, Peter Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, had traveled to California hoping to persuade the union to accept federal mediation. The union has a tradition of not allowing outside parties into negotiations, but agreed to discuss the process with Hurtgen.
"Union President James Spinosa and four members of the union's negotiating team sat in one fifth-floor conference room while Miniace and the Pacific Maritime Assn. negotiating team of about 15 sat in another," says the L.A. Times. "Hurtgen shuttled between them."
In the hall, reports the newspaper, were "two armed off-duty police officers" who arrived with Joseph Miniace, chief negotiator for the Pacific Maritime Association. According to the newspaper, the two said they had been Miniace's bodyguards since he received death threats 10 days ago.
"Less than an hour into the talks," reports the L.A. Times, Spinosa learned that the guards were armed and quickly left the building along with his entire team.
An ILWU press release gave a rather more colorful account. It says ILWU officers walked out of the talks when they arrived "and were greeted by gun-toting security guards under the employment of the PMA."
The ILWU also says that both sides had agreed to limit their representatives to five each to make the talks manageable. "But the ILWU delegation arrived to find nearly the entire PMA negotiating team in the office along with two security personnel packing weapons."
ILWU International President Jim Spinosa asked Hurtgen if it was government policy to allow employers to bring weapons to mediation talks. Hurtgen replied that he was aware the PMA brought security to the meeting but didn't realize they were armed.
"This is an outrageous action taken by Miniace and the PMA," Spinosa said. "This shows how they approach negotiations, hiding behind the government and armed thugs. PMA'Ős lockout is holding a gun to the head of the American economy and now they move to aim real guns at us. We will not be intimidated by these kinds of tactics and we will never reach an agreement as long as the PMA acts as if it can force a settlement at gun point rather than negotiate."
By yesterday afternoon, union sources said they were ready to talk about more talks, but not with Miniace.
At a White House press briefing yesterday, President George W. Bush was asked if the dispute was the kind of threat to the U.S. economy that might require a Taft-Hartley injunction. The President is empowered to issue such an injunction, ordering the parties back to work for an 80 day cooling off period.
"We're worried about it," said Bush. "We're closely monitoring it."
"There's a federal mediator on the ground," he added, "and I urge both parties to utilize the mediator. But we'll continue to pay attention to it. It's a problem and it's something that we're just going to have to get these parties to work through and get back to work, open these ports up. It's important for our economy we do so."