Longshore workers and shipping companies agreed to a new labor contract late Thursday, clearing the way for the resumption of normal cargo operations at West Coast ports that have been plagued by work stoppages and slowdowns for the last 10 days.
After almost two months of bargaining in San Francisco, the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Assn. concluded a new three-year contract that will affect more than 10,000 dock workers in California, Oregon and Washington.
With tensions running high, there had been considerable fear that the West Coast was headed toward its first dock strike since 1971. West Coast ports, which handle cargo worth an estimated $280 billion every year, are critical to the nation's economy.
Details of the agreement were unavailable Thursday, but negotiators said it offered increases in pay, health insurance and pension benefits for future as well as current longshore retirees, some of whom now have pensions as low as $240 a month.
"I think this is a very good agreement for the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Assn.," said Joseph N. Miniace, president of the West Coast's largest shipping association. "We had almost two weeks of work slowdowns, and we've been working until 3 a.m. the last few nights to get a contract. I am relieved, our team is relieved and their team is relieved."
The Pacific Maritime Assn., which is the union's counterpart, negotiates and administers labor contracts for about about 100 shipping lines, stevedore companies and terminal operators.
Association officials said Thursday evening that normal cargo operations will resume at all West Coast harbors, which have been hampered by work slowdowns since early July.
During their peak, longshore workers shut the Port of Oakland for two days and reduced the flow of cargo by at least half at many terminals along the coast.
The pace of work raised fears that the delays eventually would cost business and industry millions of dollars in lost revenue, not to mention losses in fees to port authorities.
Harbor officials in Long Beach and Los Angeles, the nation's largest combined port, said Thursday that any backlog of cargo should be cleared from the docks in the days ahead.
The contract agreement "is good news for the ports," said Art Wong, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach. "There have been long truck lines, and we've been getting calls from worried manufacturers. We should be able to clear things up pretty quickly."
Both sides declined to discuss what agreements, if any, were reached on several important contract issues: increasing the productivity of longshore workers, the number and type of jobs under union control, and the use of new labor-saving technology on the docks.
Negotiators said the terms of the contract will not be released until after the agreement is ratified in the weeks ahead by union members and the executive board of the maritime association.
"We are pleased to have reached an agreement that provides ILWU members with a package that rewards them for the hard work they put forward every day," said James Spinosa, the union's vice president and chief negotiator.
West Coast longshore workers now earn about $60,000 to $100,000 a year, depending on their skills and rank. Wages can go higher for heavy equipment operators, dock bosses and marine clerks who track cargo.
Association officials headed into the negotiations saying the talks were critical for improving the reliability and productivity of the waterfront labor force.
They also said they hoped to engage in substantive discussions about the use of technology on the docks and ways to avoid repeating the scores of costly work stoppages that followed the 1996 labor contract.
Among the issues critical to the union were increases in pension and medical benefits as well as the union's jurisdiction--the number of port-related jobs that fall under its control.
Labor officials said that if modernization continues, steps must be taken to preserve union positions and expand the organization's jurisdiction beyond port boundaries.
Both sides came to the bargaining table in May after several years of court fights and political rancor.
Within the union itself, longshore locals in Southern California had repeatedly tried to remove President Brian McWilliams and neutralize his power.
The locals issued a vote of no confidence in the president and demanded that he take a leave of absence for the remainder of his term. Williams, however, has remained in office.
The union's internal conflicts coincided with a series of sharp attacks by the Pacific Maritime Assn., which targeted the productivity and reliability of longshore workers.
Miniace, a labor relations specialist who worked for Ford Motor Co. and Ryder, led the assault in public and in court, repeatedly suing the union over work stoppages and slowdowns, to no avail.
Miniace contends that productivity, measured by tons of cargo handled per hour paid, has either stagnated or declined in each of the last four years. His greatest fear, he said, was that customers would send their goods through other ports in the United States or Mexico if things didn't improve on the West Coast.
Union officials criticized Miniace's aggressive approach, saying he was a newcomer who did not understand the shipping industry.