Responding to increased congestion and claims by local seaport operators and shippers that labor is to blame, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has put forward new proposals for operational changes at the ports.

The proposals are considered a precursor to negotiations set to start a year from now between the union and port operators. The current three-year contract expires in June 2002, and union officials will be seeking another three-year deal.

Among the proposals is a suggestion that equipment and early-arrival cargo be held at off-dock container yards to reduce traffic congestion and increase dock space.

Made public earlier this month at a town meeting in Long Beach, the plan also calls for extending gate hours, establishing a centralized dispatching center at the port gates and training longshoremen to handle the influx of modern technology.

The proposals which were presented to the Pacific Maritime Association (the bargaining unit for shipping companies, stevedores and dock operators) are aimed at reducing the time that truckers must wait before moving in and out of the docks. Unions have long been complaining that cargo that doesn't have to be immediately loaded onto a ship or transported to a distributor is preventing crane operators from efficiently loading and unloading other cargo.

"It's clogging the docks," said Domenick Miretti, the union's senior liaison to both ports. "We want the cargo off the dock, so when the next ship comes in, we have space to work. The docks should not be a storage facility."

The PMA has opposed the off-dock storage sites as being too costly.

Extended gate hours necessary to pull cargo from the docks would mean paying workers time-and-a-half, union officials acknowledged. ILWU members already earn as much as $120,000 a year.

With association President Joseph Miniace having guaranteed that no jobs would be lost if port operations are modernized, his office wants the union to focus attention on optimizing existing facilities instead of developing new, off-site operations.

"(Off-dock sites) can be cost prohibitive," said Abbie Granger, spokeswoman for association. "Additionally, a lot of the sites they are talking about have contaminated soil. They are former oil properties."

Miniace, in a recently letter to Local 13 of the ILWU, agreed that workers should be given additional training in new technology.

Richard Hollingsworth, president of the Gateway Cities Partnership, an economic development agency representing 27 cities that neighbor the two docks, said off-dock sites would not do anything to alleviate traffic congestion on the nearby freeways.

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