Still Waiting For Their Ship To Come In

Charlie Woo is afraid the Grinch may steal his Christmas. More than 60 cargo containers laden with the toy wholesaler's goodies were bobbing in ships off Los Angeles during the 10-day lockout at West Coast ports. But even after longshoremen returned to work last week, Woo still had no idea when he'd see the dolls and radio-controlled cars he sells to big retailers like Wal-Mart. Other importers are holding their breath, too, hoping the 200 ships will be unloaded faster than the six to 10 weeks officials predict, averting bare shelves at the mall. Woo, president of L.A. based Megatoys, fears the port mess could lop $4 million off his firm's annual sales of $30 million. Adds Woo: "It's not good."

Neither are prospects for a quick end to the labor fight. After President George W. Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act, shippers and the union agreed to the labor law's 80-day cooling-off period. That pushed the danger of another port closure past Christmas. But it didn't resolve key issues, and shippers are still worried about labor slowdowns.

The chief sticking point concerns technology--and only a few hundred of the 10,500 union jobs. West Coast ports are less automated than East Coast and Asian ports, and shippers say they want to install more high-tech tools like optical scanners, tracking computers and global-positioning devices. Modernization might eliminate up to 600 positions, and workers say they accept technology, and even job losses, to a point. But they insist that any new tech-related jobs go to union members. "We want the jobs to stay on the waterfront,'' says Tom Harrison, a union exec in L.A. The shippers disagree, and the two sides appear far apart. Maybe Santa needs to pack a new contract in his sleigh.