Shippers, Port Workers Far Apart as Labor Talks Loom

By DAVID GREENBERG
Staff Reporter

Workers and ship companies at Los Angeles, Long Beach and other West Coast ports will finally begin this week what promises to be raucous negotiations on a new three-year contract.

Clashing over technology and its effect on jobs, what looked to be a relatively peaceful process last winter has been reduced to a slew of threats of work stoppages, accusations of bad-faith bargaining, and the possibility of the first dock strike in 31 years.

Work stoppages at West Coast ports would have a potentially devastating effect on the world economy.

"If there is a strike or a lock-out here, it could cause an international financial crisis," said Stephen Cohen, co-director of the Berkeley Roundtable on the International Economy, which has conducted a study on the potential impacts of a strike. "It could seriously hurt the economic recovery this summer."

The current three-year contract expires June 30, at the time retailers start ordering goods for the holiday season. Both sides had been optimistic earlier this year about settling and had planned to start negotiations as early as March instead of May. But things have deteriorated.

A 10-day strike or port shutdown would cause $19.4 billion in losses to the national economy and the loss of $693 million in tax receipts for local, state and federal governments, according to the study.

The L.A. and Long Beach ports account for at least two-thirds of the $309 billion worth of container traffic that passes through West Coast ports annually, said Cohen.

While the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the ship and stevedore companies, are cautiously optimistic that a strike can be avoided, they vowed not to sign an agreement unless their demands are met.

With hourly wages at $27.68 to $51.55 for longshoremen, $33.90 to $58.40 for foremen and $27.18 to $53.17 for clerks, the ILWU's demand for a $1 per hour raise for all workers is almost an afterthought.

The major roadblock to an agreement is the union's trepidation over computerized systems the PMA claims will make the ports run more efficiently.

Technologies include computers that automatically retrieve information from shippers via the Internet and video cameras that capture and transmit container, truck and chassis license plate numbers directly onto terminal databases.

The PMA said it has offered a written guarantee that all current workers, including the clerks that currently store this information manually, will keep their jobs until they retire. "We will keep those people to run those computers," said PMA President Joseph Miniace.

The PMA wants full-time workers assigned to the same station for a year or two, as opposed to a different terminal each day. The association also wants to implement a system allowing part-time workers to call or log in by computer the night before their shift to find out where they will be working a process that would avoid delays in the dispatch halls.

Union officials said they have no problem with new technology as long as it does not eliminate jobs as they claim it has in the past decade when management hired non-union workers for as low as $10 per hour to track cargo by computer from out of state.

The ILWU also has a complaint pending with the National Labor Relations Board contending that the PMA is using unfair labor practices by not revealing the specifics of its technology plans so the union could analyze their effects before contract talks begin.

"The employer is obligated to turn over the requested information so that the union can bargain knowledgeably," said Steve Stallone, communications director for the ILWU, which requested the information last August. "We will go to the table. But it makes it very difficult to have productive talks."

The union, whose membership includes 6,000 full- and 1,000 part-time workers at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, also wants more health benefits, such as orthopedic shoes for workers who are on their feet all day, and nursing home care for ex-laborers.

Meanwhile, the PMA has vowed to shut down the ports if the union staged a "work slow-down" as the PMA claimed it did during the 1999 and 1996 negotiations, cutting productivity by 20 to 50 percent at each port.

"When you slow the waterfront down, that's a strike with pay," said Miniace. "The effects on the carriers and the shippers is much more devastating than a total (strike.)"

The ILWU denied using slow-down tactics and accused the PMA of fudging their container traffic records to give the illusion of a work slowdown.

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