As the 10,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union went back to work Wednesday evening, they were greeted with stacks of everything from car parts to Christmas presents that piled up during the 10 days West Coast ports were shut down.
"We're just glad to be back at work," Karen Korbich, who's been a dockworker in Los Angeles for nine years. "We're not sure what it's going to be like, but we expect it to be very congested."
From San Diego to Seattle, longshoremen lowered cranes and began plucking metal containers stacked on ships that have sat idle since a contract dispute led to a lockout of workers late last month.
The lockout ended when a federal judge ordered the reopening of all 29 Pacific ports at the request of the Bush administration. The court order requires a return to work during an 80-day cooling-off period during which both sides will again try to agree on a contract.
Dockworkers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are working around the clock. Work also resumed at five terminals in Tacoma, Wash.
Union leaders and rank-and-file alike are venting their anger over what they see as a pro-employer court order.
"These 80 days will not be a 'cooling-off period,"' said International Longshore and Warehouse Union President Jim Spinosa.
In Seattle, crane operator Bob Campbell, a dockworker for 34 years, said the mood is "semi-somber." He accused the court of eliminating collective bargaining with its return to work order.
He said workers are glad to be back but didn't want it to be "under these conditions."
At the Port of Oakland in Northern California, workers who hadn't seen each other for more than a week exchanged hugs and handshakes as they suited up for work in a dock parking lot.
Dockworkers said they will work as fast as they can without sacrificing safety, a statement their employers questioned. Representatives of the Pacific Maritime Association accused dockworkers of taking part in a deliberate slowdown when they locked them out last month, and said they feared another slowdown.
Shipping lines and terminal operators are scrutinizing work rates and plan to announce Thursday whether productivity is meeting their expectations.
Both sides acknowledged work rates are bound to be slower initially because of the maze of containers that have stacked up on docks.
"We need to be sure that we pay attention to all the precautions that we have always adhered to in terms of safety procedures," said John Pachtner, a spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators. "We clearly need to adhere to those - and we clearly need full productivity."
If the PMA can prove the workers are intentionally working below capacity, it can bring any evidence it has of that to a federal judge and ask that union members be compelled to work "at a normal pace."
"They're going to be under the microscope about whether they're working safe or working slow," said Barbara Dab, a spokeswoman for Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.
Richard Mead, president of the union's San Francisco local, which has a long history of militant activism, stood inside the booth in San Francisco's dispatch hall Wednesday evening and told workers that the emphasis on safety should not be taken to an extreme.
"We're not going to gimmick the safety code, but we're going to enforce it," Mead said over the loudspeaker. "We're not looking to slow down, we're looking to go home in one piece."
Union officials said enforcement of the safety code would mean, for example, not rolling through stop signs when driving on the docks and checking the brakes, horns and tires of all vehicles before using them.