Their contract does not expire for more than three months, but representatives of the West Coast dockworkers' union and major transpacific shipping lines plan to begin negotiations today on a new six-year labor deal.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association said they wanted to begin negotiations earlier than usual in the hopes of avoiding the problems of the previous talks in 2002, when an impasse in negotiations led to a costly worker lockout.

In a recent interview with the Business Journal, Jim McKenna, president and chief negotiator for the maritime group, said he is hopeful the two sides can reach an agreement before the July 1 deadline. A new healthcare package and revised work hours will be two of the main issues.

But both McKenna and representatives of the 26,000-member dockworkers union said they will be prepared in the event that they cannot approve a contract in time.

When negotiators in 2002 could not reach an agreement by the mid-summer deadline, West Coast port workers were locked out of their jobs by the maritime association for 10 days, costing the economy more than $1 billion per day and forcing President Bush to intervene and order workers back to their jobs.

The lockout was particularly damaging to the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, which together handle 40 percent of the nation's cargo and are the world's fifth-largest port complex.

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