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Union dispute slows work at vital western port to a crawl

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Shown in this Dec. 12, 2011 file photo are Port of Portland cranes, with Mount St. Helens in the background. (Reuters)

At first glance, operations at the Port of Portland might look normal. Trucks come and go. Containers are loaded and unloaded. But upon closer inspection, it's clear the normally efficient system is moving like molasses. 

Crane operators hover over a container for up to a minute before hooking and moving it. Once the container is set down, the crane worker backs up right in the path of the next truck and sits there for another minute. It all adds up to lost time and lost productivity at the busiest port in Oregon, a state where 500,000 jobs are dependent on international trade. 

The work slowdown has been going on for a year and is threatening thousands of jobs and the region's economy. It's the result of a war between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and the terminal operator, ICTSI. 

The company's CEO claims the reason they're still fighting is the union wants to oust the company and return to the days when the port was run by a pseudo-government agency. 

"The union wants to put ICTSI out of business in Portland," the company's CEO Elvis Ganda said. "And I think they want to see things returned to a situation where they can dictate how the operation runs." 

Before ICTSI took over Terminal 6, the Port of Portland ran the docks. Ganda said the longshoremen are working at a snail's pace because they're still angry over a recent dispute over jobs. 

The work in question involves plugging and unplugging refrigerated containers. Traditionally, the jobs belonged to electricians in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). 

The ILWU tried to take that work -- and eventually, the work slowdown became so severe, Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber stepped in and negotiated a deal taking the jobs from the electricians and giving them to the ILWU. 

But even after that apparent win for the longshoremen, the port is still at a crawl, which is costing shippers and trucking companies lost time and money. 

"It's costing us thousands upon thousands of dollars," said John Lawrence of Western Container. "Drivers are having to sit at the port six, eight hours to do one turn. They're not making any money." 

The slowdown did have one noteworthy exception. Workers were told Feb. 2 they could leave as soon as they unloaded a ship. Apparently, that was good reason to pick up the pace to finally move the normal number of containers. 

Kitzhaber spelled out his frustration in a letter to the ILWU, writing, "I am dismayed to see that recent production levels at Terminal 6 continue to be below historical averages -- except for Super Bowl Sunday." 

Since then, there's only been more tension. 

The union seems to be getting even more militant. The National Labor Relations Board accused the longshoremen in nearby Vancouver, Wash., of threatening the children of United Grain employees, including the threatened rape of one manager's daughter. The union's alleged actions, apparently a response to a lockout, also involved injuring and hurling racial slurs at security guards. 

Businesses which are dependent on trade are watching and worried. 

"It goes all the way through our economy and it's the base of our economy here," said Sandra McDonough of the Portland Business Alliance. 

The ILWU did not return numerous requests from Fox News for comment. In published stories about the labor dispute, the union has been critical of the Port of Portland for paying shipping lines a $4 million subsidy to keep calling on Portland. Port officials say it's not a public subsidy, but rather a necessary incentive with the money coming from port revenue, not taxpayers.

Dan Springer joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in August 2001 as a Seattle-based correspondent.