Ports and Union Prepare for Early Bargaining Talks

Staff Reporter

The union representing workers at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is signaling that it will agree to early negotiations on a new three-year contract as a July 1 deadline looms.

It is the one bright note in a union-management fight that has been brewing for months, as the desire by shippers to use more advanced technology clashes with the union's concerns over job security.

The International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union emerged from its two-week contract caucus in San Francisco in late January, more than a month earlier than usual. This sets the stage for formal bargaining to begin as early as late March, labor and management officials said. Contract negotiations typically begin in early to mid May.

The union wants a $1 per hour raise for longshoremen, clerks and foremen including 6,000 permanent and 1,000 part-time workers stationed at the two local ports. But union officials are more concerned about restoring some of the lost jobs over the past decade.

"Maintaining what is our jurisdiction is a top priority for us," said Steve Stallone, an ILWU spokesman. "We understand that technology will bring a loss of some jobs. But if the jobs being farmed out to non-union workers were returned to the hall, it would balance itself out. We still want to be able to do that work no matter how it's done."

Hourly wages, which are based on skill level and shift times, run at $27.68 to $51.55 for longshoremen, $33.90 to $58.40 for foremen, and $27.18 to $53.17 for clerks. Union officials said that non-union workers who track cargo away from the port make as little as $10 per hour.

Permanent positions safe

The Pacific Maritime Association, which is the bargaining arm of the ship and stevedore companies, has not said whether it will restore lost jobs. The group has only indicated that permanent full-time positions would remain in place.

"Technology is better for employers," said Tracey Kennedy, a labor attorney with L.A.-based Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton. "The downside is that some people may lose their jobs as things become more automated. Technology at the same time can create other jobs with a different set of skills."

Among the new technologies the PMA wants implemented are computers that automatically retrieve cargo information from shippers via the Internet, and video cameras with "optical character recognition" software that capture container, chassis and truck license plate numbers and transmits the data directly into terminal data bases.

Currently, clerks manually store this information into computers, which the PMA maintains is a waste of time and money.

"It's redundant," said Jack Suite, the PMA's director of contract administration. "At some point you have so many clerks standing around that you have a crowd of people in a terminal. It doesn't work. Adding people doesn't solve the problem. And adding people is costly."

The technology, he said, would enhance efficiency at the ports, which are running out of room to build new terminals. Yet, within 10 years, L.A. and Long Beach alone are expected to double the $200 billion in exports and imports that currently pass through those docks. Without enhanced efficiency, PMA officials maintain, a sizeable portion of that cargo could be lost to Canada and Mexico.

"The employers need to make use of technology to improve productivity at terminals if they hope to be able to accommodate the growth that is projected," said Suite.

Communication problems

In a December 2000 letter to the union, PMA President Joe Miniace offered several job security guarantees "in exchange for the unrestricted implementation of new technology." But union officials complained that none of the specific technologies outlined by Suite were included in the correspondence. They sent the PMA a letter last August demanding specifics and say they have not received a response.

"It's difficult to discuss technology when there are no proposals from the employer," said Stallone. "So far, all Miniace has said is he wants a free hand to do whatever he wants to do. (The early caucus) was so we could be prepared to do our part to move these contract negotiations along."

The PMA said it paid for a trip to European and other West Coast ports two years ago so top international and local ILWU officials could examine modern technologies and work practices already in use. "The ILWU is not ignorant of what the rest of the world is doing," said Suite.

Other improvements the union is seeking include collapsing the tiered system that pays retired workers at different pension levels. Officials want one fixed level for all retirees and another level for current workers, which inevitably will increase as time goes by.

The ILWU also wants enhanced health benefits, including orthopedic shoes specifically fitted for workers on their feet all day and home nursing care for workers who are very sick, as well as additional sick and vacation time.

The PMA, in turn, wants to streamline the existing "grievance machinery" pertaining to on-site labor and safety disputes that can take weeks or months to resolve. The current system involves up to six levels of labor-management committees and arbitrators.

On certain issues, PMA officials believe that a two-level system a labor-management hearing and, with unresolved disputes, a final ruling by an arbitrator would resolve conflicts in a single day.

The PMA is expected to meet with ILWU locals up and down the West Coast this month in hopes of establishing a start-up date for bargaining sessions.

While many issues need to be resolved, neither side expects the situation will deteriorate into what would be only the second strike since the PMA was established in 1949. That stoppage lasted from July 1, 1971 through Feb. 20, 1972.

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