President Bush Bush Monday signed an executive order creating a fact-finding board of inquiry under the Taft-Hartley Act -- a potential first step toward ending a dispute that has shut down 29 West Coast ports and sapped billions from the economy.  

Top Democrats and union officials blasted the move as heavy-handed and demonstrating anti-labor bias.

One day after talks aimed at ending the lockout broke down, Bush signed an executive order creating a fact-finding board of inquiry under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act. The board is to make a quick assessment of the economic damage of the labor dispute and determine whether the two sides are negotiating in good faith.

It is the first time the law has ever been invoked when an employer has locked out its workers, and marks its first use since 1978, when former President Jimmy Carter failed to win an injunction ordering coal miners back to work.

"A continuation of this lockout, if permitted to continue, will imperil the national health and safety," said the order.

The lockout of ports handling $300 billion a year in trade had raised widespread fears of new disruptions in the faltering U.S. economy. Some 200 ships carrying food, manufacturing equipment and retail goods sit idle off the West Coast.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Bush acted "out of concern for the economy and jobs." By some accounts, the lockout costs the United States economy as much as $2 billion a day, although some economists say the cost is far less.

The board of inquiry, led by former Sen. Bill Brock, will report to Bush Tuesday about the economic costs of the lockout and the parties' positions. That will clear the way for the administration to seek an injunction -- possibly as early as late Tuesday -- to reopen the ports for 80 days.

"The country has been patient. ... But now ordinary Americans are being seriously harmed by this dispute," said Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, noting some factory workers had already lost their jobs because parts could not be delivered, and millions of dollars of food was rotting on the docks.

The AFL-CIO, a federation of 66 U.S. labor unions, said Bush's decision was unprecedented, unnecessary and would delay resolution of the labor dispute, possibly for months.

The AFL-CIO said the 10,500-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) agreed late Sunday to return to work for seven days while negotiations continued, but the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), representing shippers and terminal operators at the 29 West Coast ports, rejected the offer.

The PMA ordered the lockout Sept. 29 after accusing the dock workers union of staging illegal work slowdowns as contract talks bogged down over the issue of how new technology would be introduced, and its impact on union jobs.

Implementing labor-saving technology like electronic tracking devices puts only a small number of jobs at risk in the short term, but future jobs are at stake, as well as control of the flow of information at the ports.

The PMA has always given the ILWU jurisdiction over new technology in the past, union negotiator Joseph Wenzl said Sunday.

"The union feels we have offered a proposal that meets the employer in the middle," he said.

The three-member board of inquiry appointed by Bush will gather data and talk with both parties. Chairman Brock, a Republican from Tennessee and national party chairman in the 1970s, also served as trade representative and labor secretary in President Ronald Reagan's administration.

After he gets the report, Bush can seek a court injunction to halt the work stoppage for 80 days. Administration officials said they expect Bush to act as early as Tuesday or Wednesday.

If the ports are ordered reopened and the dispute is not settled after 60 days, the act requires a secret ballot vote by the workers on the employers' final offer. If the offer is rejected, the lockout could resume after 80 days.

Before talks broke down Sunday, the White House appeared reluctant to intervene. Administration officials feared intervention would fail and prompt a backlash by organized labor against Republicans in Nov. 5 congressional elections.

In the last 55 years, courts have granted 29 of the 31 Taft-Hartley back-to-work orders presidents have sought.

Chao said the White House has intervened in all 11 port strikes or shutdowns since the Taft-Hartley Act passed, but officials said that in eight of those cases, the parties did not resolve their differences within the 80-day period.

Meanwhile, analysts and business leaders said a second week of a West Coast port shutdown will cause a noticeable increase in plant closings, job losses and financial market turmoil.

Experts have estimated the shutdown could cost the U.S. economy $2 billion a day, and one report said a 20-day shutdown would cost $48.6 billion.

In less than two weeks, if the shutdown continues, manufacturing plants will be grinding to a halt all over the country, farmers will be up in arms, and Asian equity and currency markets could face a full-blown crisis, said Steven Cohen, a University of California, Berkeley professor of regional planning.

"It's like draining a swamp. You start seeing all kinds of ugly creatures," he said.

Cohen, who studied the economic impact of the port closure for the shippers' association, said a five-day shutdown would cost the U.S. economy about $4.7 billion, while a 20-day shutdown would cost $48.6 billion.

The number of cargo vessels stranded at the docks or backing up at anchor points has risen to about 200 since the lockout, with dozens more still en route from Asia.

According to American Farm Bureau Federation figures, between 20 percent and 30 percent of all U.S. agriculture products are exported, and a third of that goes to the Pacific rim -- mostly through the West Coast ports.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.