Labor Tension Continues at Port Despite Hard-Won Pact

Staff Reporter

If there ever was a honeymoon between unionized dockworkers and steamship lines calling on the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, it's long gone.

Eight months after both sides hailed the ratification of a six-year contract aimed at lessening tensions at the ports, a slowdown by longshoremen earlier this month has left employers carefully monitoring the pace of workflow.

The slowdown, which union officials deny was retaliatory, had been staged by dockworkers after the number of "swingmen" working with each crane was lowered to four from five.

The Pacific Maritime Association won a temporary victory on Sept. 11 when arbitrator David Miller ruled that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union had committed slowdowns in violation of its contract and ordered them stopped.

Port officials said the matter's quick resolution enabled workers to clear away the backlog of cargo caused by the slowdown late last week.

"(Miller) found the union guilty of slowdowns and in violation of the contract," said Chuck Wallace, vice president of the PMA's Southern California region. "Management is monitoring their levels of productivity to make sure there isn't any continued job actions and will continue to do that."

The slowdown cut container traffic an average of 30 percent at the ports from Sept. 9th through the 11th, after terminal operators in a bid to improve productivity reduced the number of swingmen on Sept. 8, Wallace said.

The productivity decline, union officials stated, was due to the reduced manpower.

"Our response is very simple," said Steve Stallone, an ILWU spokesman. "If you reduce manning, you reduce productivity. (Five swingmen) is a practice that's existed for 20 years at different terminals up and down the coast."

Peak season

Had the matter not been resolved quickly, the dispute could have crippled traffic at the ports at just the wrong time. August through mid-October is the peak shipping season for retailers importing merchandise for Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Last January, the ILWU ratified a historic agreement calling for major pay and pension increases, as well as maintenance of its already generous health benefits, in exchange for allowing employers to implement labor-saving technology at the terminals, which are run by the ship companies.

The decision to reduce the number of workers per crane is one of a series of moves designed to make the ports run more cost efficiently. Union officials acknowledged the move is not in violation of the new contract.

With full-time longshoremen making an average of $107,781 last year, the terminals, which have six to 12 cranes each, will save many thousands of dollars each year by eliminating the single crane swingman.

Labor experts warned that the matter has renewed tensions between the union and its employers, and that future implementation of labor-saving technologies and systems could lead to other disruptions.

"Just because they have a contract doesn't mean they have eliminated labor unrest," said Daniel Mitchell, a professor of management and public policy at UCLA.

Crane 'gangs'

For now, port officials said they don't expect disruptions to be anywhere near the magnitude of the 10-day shutdown of the ports last fall, when the PMA closed the ports in response to alleged union slowdowns during contract negotiations.

"There are always labor disputes and there might be some minor backups," said Al Fierstine, director of business development at the Port of L.A. "But I don't see any major disruptions to port operations."

In past practice, employers at the local ports hired "gangs" of five ILWU workers per crane one to sit in the cab operating the controls while four others lock and unlock the cones that secure the containers to port vehicles so the containers may be safely transported to terminal yards.

The new system eliminated one worker handling the cones. Employers said most terminals up and down the West Coast traditionally had used four people per crane. "The operating practice is four," said Mick Shultz, a spokesman for the Port of Seattle. "That's what the contract specifies."

Local port officials said they waited until September to make the changes because the terminals were still working through a lockout-induced backlog of cargo when the contract was ratified in January. They also cited bureaucratic factors.

But the union was not satisfied. "Who understands this?" said Stallone. "This is the time when you want the most productivity. Their actions have never been rational."

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