OAKLAND — After almost seven weeks of contract negotiations, longshore workers shut down the Port of Oakland for the second straight day Wednesday and continued work slowdowns in Los Angeles and Long Beach, actions that may portend more serious labor-management tensions at West Coast ports in the days ahead.
The job actions by members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union coincide with a break in contract talks with the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents almost 100 West Coast shipping lines, stevedore companies and terminal operators. The two sides have failed to agree on a three-year contract after weeks of steady bargaining in San Francisco. The previous contract expired last Thursday.
Economists say a five-day dockworkers' strike on the West Coast could cost the nation's economy almost $4 billion and result in the loss of at least 12,000 jobs. Every year, about $270 billion in cargo moves through ports from Bellingham, Wash., to San Diego. In recent years, trade has also grown in its importance to the economy of Southern California.
"We deeply regret that the union decided to stage these actions at California ports," said Joseph Miniace, president of the Pacific Maritime Assn. "We proposed a total wage and benefits package that would make the West Coast longshore union members among the highest compensated union workers in America."
The talks and emerging labor tension have come to the attention of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which is participating directly in the contract discussions.
The government service, which has 200 mediators, monitors labor negotiations around the nation. Last year it actively participated as an independent advisor for labor and management in almost 5,800 contract talks.
"This is a very high priority for us," said David Helfert, an agency spokesman. West Coast ports "have tremendous impact on the nation's economy. Our goal is a new contract. We will do anything to help both sides."
In the Port of Oakland, crane operators have stayed off the job at all 11 terminals, leaving at least 12 ships waiting to be loaded or unloaded. In Los Angeles and Long Beach, marine clerks, who track cargo on the docks, have refused to staff terminals before 8 a.m. and during lunch.
Pacific Maritime officials said Wednesday night they also had reports of a work slowdown in Portland, Ore., in the unloading of steel from a freighter.
The negotiations, which began in mid-May, affect more than 10,000 of the union's members in Washington, Oregon and California. Under their old contract, dockworkers earned $60,000 to $100,000 a year, depending on their rank and skill level. Heavy equipment operators, dock bosses and marine clerks make more.
Dockworkers have not staged a full-scale strike on the West Coast in more than a generation, but smaller-scale job actions frequently accompany contract disputes.
Discussions entered a hiatus Saturday as both parties withdrew from the bargaining table to let union officials consider the latest round of offers from the maritime association. They included improvements in pension benefits.
According to the association, union negotiators promised to notify the shippers when they wanted to resume discussions, but they have not yet done so.
Meanwhile, the maritime association has asked the National Labor Relations Board, which handles complaints alleging unfair labor practices, to order the Oakland crane operators back to work.
James Spinosa, the union's chief negotiator, said Wednesday that the work stoppage in Oakland was started by the rank and file of Local 10 and that their action was not part of the negotiating committee's bargaining strategy.
Union officials said talks are underway with shipping companies in the Port of Oakland to end the stoppage, which began about 7 a.m. Tuesday.
Oakland, which handles 33 shipping lines and 12% of West Coast cargo, is the nation's fourth-largest port. It has about 1,400 dockworkers but few were on the job Wednesday.
"It's been real quiet around here," said Roberta Bradley, a spokeswoman for the Oakland Port Authority. "We're losing money. And if it lasts another day, these ships will go elsewhere."
Bradley said the port has been unable to collect fees for cranes, dockage and other services, which can run as high as $60,000 per ship.
Union and association officials said the port's crane operators refused to work because they want an additional signal person for safety reasons.
In Oakland, two crane operators are assigned to every crane. While one unloads cargo from the ship, the other acts as a signal person to help guide cargo containers safely onto awaiting trucks. After four hours, they change jobs.
The crane operators now want a full-time signal person assigned to each crane so they won't have to do that job. Shipping representatives criticized the proposal as inefficient because they say it could lead to the crane operators working only four hours a day but getting paid for eight.