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Dockworkers' Talks Break Off

Labor: Union and shipping lines emerge pointing fingers after both sides offer plans on coping with technology.

July 22, 2002|From Associated Press

OAKLAND — Negotiations over a new West Coast dockworkers contract broke off late Sunday with longshore workers and shipping lines accusing each other of ignoring good-faith offers and ruining what had appeared to be a hopeful exchange of proposals.

Officials at both the Pacific Maritime Assn. and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have been publicly upbeat about negotiations--even as they conceded there was little progress since their contract officially expired July 1.

Talks over the weekend, they said, would foreshadow either a quick conclusion or a protracted dispute over a deal that governs about $260 billion worth of goods that move through 29 major ports from San Diego to Seattle.

Last week the union offered what it cast as a fair and reasonable proposal to solve the tangled problem of introducing more-efficient technology to the waterfront without making too many jobs obsolete. Shipping lines countered Sunday afternoon, and the two sides emerged pointing fingers.

"They seem to almost reject my proposal out of hand, and it's a bitter disappointment to me," Joseph Miniace, the association's chief executive, said after Sunday's negotiations. "This was a melding of both proposals and we've come a great distance since negotiations began."

A union spokesman responded that the association had hardly budged from a preliminary offer of months ago--and that was galling because the union had offered to accept job cuts for job security as computers do more work on the docks.

"We offered him everything he asked for. He gave us nothing. Zero, zip, zilch," said Steve Stallone, a spokesman for the union which represents 10,500 dockworkers. "It's a major disappointment, and it shows that he's not really trying to negotiate."

Both sides did approve another 24-hour contract extension, as they have done since July 1. Union negotiators also will present the association's latest proposal at a meeting of delegates from local chapters that convenes this week in San Francisco, where the negotiations are taking place.

"I wouldn't call it a breakdown yet," Miniace said. "I consider it a significant event, but I wouldn't say it's a breakdown."

Both sides have promised harmony on the docks. The union downplayed initial murmurs of a strike, and shipping lines say they won't lock out workers unless they determine there has been an organized slowdown.

With Pacific Rim trade projected to double in the next decade, shipping lines complain that West Coast ports won't be able to keep up unless they catch up with their more automated Asian peers.

That made technology the focus of this contract.

Early last week, the union pitched a proposal that Stallone said would cost about 600 of the 2,100 longshore clerk jobs. The trade-off was that the union would control new jobs generated from increased efficiency.

The association responded guardedly, saying the proposal wouldn't cut costs at all. On Sunday, Miniace reiterated his promise that no current longshore clerk would lose his job.

"When you guarantee somebody that I am going to protect your job as I modernize, that is a tremendous offer," he said.

He also said his proposal would give longshore workers a 17% increase in compensation--wages, health benefits and pension--over five years. He said the union had asked for a 57% increase in those costs over three years. Overall, he said, the cost of the contract would rise about $200 million to $1.4 billion.

The union's response to the association's offer is expected to emerge soon.

About 80 rank-and-file longshore workers from along the coast are set to meet this week in San Francisco. During negotiations in 1999, that caucus offered a chance to debate a draft contract. This year, it could become a forum for the union to brace for battle.

Already, the union has scheduled a Wednesday demonstration outside the association's San Francisco headquarters.

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