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California and the West

Technology Tops Agenda as Port Labor Talks Begin

Contracts: Dockworkers seek job preservation while the shipping industry hopes to avoid work stoppages.


After three years of labor tension and court battles, shipping companies and the powerful dockworkers union this week will begin contract negotiations over basic working conditions and further modernization of America's West Coast ports, including Los Angeles and Long Beach.

People in the shipping industry compare the issues on the table to those hashed out in the historic 1961 agreement that hastened the spread of technology and labor-saving innovations, particularly the use of cargo containers.

This time it is automation, computers and new rail projects that will speed cargo from ships to inland freight yards and storage areas.

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, maintains that the negotiations are critical to improving the productivity and dependability of the waterfront labor force.

Association representatives say they hope 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.

"Our main issues are productivity and reliability," said Joseph N. Miniace, president of the Pacific Maritime Assn. "Shipping companies and union members must understand that the customer is the No. 1 concern. We don't want them looking at other means of transportation or other ports."

Among the issues critical to the International Longshore and Warehouse Union are increases in pension and medical benefits as well as the union's jurisdiction--the number of port-related jobs that fall under its control.

Union officials say that if modernization continues, steps must be taken to preserve ILWU positions and expand the organization's jurisdiction beyond port boundaries.

The union contends that the organization lost jobs after the so-called mechanization and modernization agreement took effect almost 40 years ago.

"Employers must be made to understand that when they make technological changes, they must bring us along," said ILWU Vice President James Spinosa, the union's chief negotiator. "To live in yesterday's world will only prove to be disastrous."

Pact Would Affect 10,000 Workers

The maritime association and the union will begin discussing a new three-year contract for almost 10,000 dockworkers in Washington, Oregon and California. About 5,200 ILWU members work in Los Angeles and Long Beach, the largest combined port in the United States.

Longshore workers on the West Coast earn $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.

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which is the longshore union's counterpart, negotiates and administers labor contracts on behalf of more than 100 members, including shipping firms, stevedoring companies and owners of cargo terminals.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has about 60,000 members in the United States and Canada. Among them are cannery workers in Alaska and agricultural and tourist industry employees in Hawaii.

If the talks go smoothly, the new contract will take effect July 1. Both organizations have been intensely preparing their demands over the past few months. For strategic reasons, both sides declined to discuss specifics of their positions.

The association and longshore union come to the bargaining table after several years of court fights and political rancor. How much the discord will adversely affect negotiations and disrupt West Coast ports is subject to speculation.

Last year, there was fear that the West Coast might be headed toward its first dock strike since 1971. But association representatives and union members say tensions appear to have eased since then.

Within the union itself, longshore locals in Southern California have repeatedly tried to remove ILWU 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.

Among other things, sources said, longshore workers in Southern California disagreed with McWilliams' decision to end lucrative side deals that shipping companies used to attract and retain skilled workers such as crane operators.

Those incentives, which were prohibited by the 1996 contract, included shortened workweeks with full-time pay. Some of the deals continue today.

Despite strong opposition, McWilliams has refused to relinquish his post. However, he has been replaced as chief negotiator by Spinosa, a Southern California longshoreman who led the effort against him.

The union's internal conflicts coincided with a series of sharp attacks by Pacific Maritime, which has targeted the productivity and reliability of longshore workers.

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