(July 8) SAN FRANCISCO — As if the hunt for terrorists, troubles in the Middle East, and the financial woes of Amtrak weren’t keeping the man busy enough, another group is vying for President Bush’s attention to solve another problem.

This particular problem involves ongoing talks between the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, both based in San Francisco, over a new labor contract. The current contract expired July 1. At the end of that day, both sides agreed to a 24-hour contract extension, to be extended each day until the negotiations are complete.

STALLED NEGOTIATIONS

Negotiations have stalled over benefits and the use of new technology in the ports. The association wants to bring in tracking technology that could cut shipping times dramatically. The union fears the technology would lead to cuts in jobs.

The association represents 12 ports along the West Coast, including ports in Los Angeles; San Francisco; Port Hueneme, Calif.; and Seattle. The ports handle several million metric tons of refrigerated cargo each year.

Last year, the Port of Los Angeles ranked first in total refrigerated trade — counting both imports and exports — handling 872,582 metric tons of cold commodities. The Port of Seattle ranked second, with 871,680 metric tons of refrigerated two-way trade.

Bananas are a major import through Hueneme and Los Angeles ports, with more than 18 million cartons a year going through Hueneme alone.

FEARS OF STRIKE

In spite of the contract extension, retailers and shipper groups fear a breakdown in talks could lead to a strike and have asked the president to intervene in the dispute.

The National Retail Federation called on Bush to get involved for fear that a strike or slowdown could slow the recovery of the U.S. economy. The National Industrial Transportation League has also joined in the chorus, sending its own letter to the White House requesting intervention.

The Associated Press reported that a recent study by Stephen Cohen, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, said a strike could cost the U.S. economy as much as $19 billion.

However, the union has said it will not strike and has a history of keeping such promises. A similar dispute in 1999 ended with no strike and the contract being settled two weeks past the deadline.