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Longshore Backers Enlist Shoppers in Battle

Labor: Fliers ask for store patrons' support as dockworkers' contract talks flag.

July 25, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN and NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As the longshore union rejected the latest contract proposal from West Coast shippers, union supporters Wednesday tried to drum up support for their cause at what they figured would be a promising venue--a Home Depot in San Pedro.

No sooner had the doors of the store opened for business at 7:30 a.m. than union sympathizers appeared at the entrance with fistfuls of yellow fliers.

Over the next two hours, the 10 Friends of Labor members urged hundreds of patrons to write down the amount of their purchases on the fliers and then give them to cashiers.

The flier ended with a warning: "I will shop here today, but if Home Depot does not immediately remove themselves from membership of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, I WILL shop elsewhere."

Although the fliers singled out the coalition, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is locked in labor talks with shipping firms represented by the Pacific Maritime Assn., which is a member of the coalition.

As the contract talks drag on inconclusively, such efforts are likely to resonate in the blue-collar seaside communities of San Pedro and Wilmington, whose economies are closely tied to longshore worker incomes.

In San Francisco Wednesday, ILWU officials representing workers from across the West Coast unanimously rejected the latest PMA proposal, then marched to a boisterous rally in front of the shipping association's headquarters.

The voice vote by 80 union representatives came after a two-day presentation of the offer, which would have raised wages about 17% over five years while cutting hundreds of highly paid marine clerk positions through the introduction of new technology.

The union claimed the PMA planned to reduce health and pension benefits and outsource union jobs to nonunion contractors.

PMA officials denied those charges and said the offer was generous, given the current economic climate. They said job cuts would be balanced by early-retirement offers and guarantees of full-time employment to union members.

Both the coalition and PMA have called for technological improvements in cargo handling that have union members anxious.

Both sides expect to meet again early next week. They are extending the current contract, which was due to expire July 1, on a day-to-day basis.

The Home Depot store has been targeted, union supporters said, because it belongs to the coalition and because of its proximity to the Port of Los Angeles.

"It's outrageous that they're taking money from us as customers and then stabbing us in the back," said Diane Middleton, a San Pedro attorney who represents individual longshore workers.

Robin Lanier, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based coalition, insisted that the union supporters' fliers wrongly labeled her group as "nothing but a front organization for powerful shipping interests that want to destroy labor."

"For some reason that is mystifying to me, the union has decided we are opposed to their interests," Lanier said. "Our issue is to promote efficient, safe ports."

She added: "As a side issue, we believe the ports are not functioning correctly; they've become a bottleneck in the supply chain. Is labor part of that problem? Absolutely. But they are not alone. The shippers themselves are part of the problem too."

The message delivered Wednesday to customers of the Home Depot at the corner of Gaffey Street and Westmont Drive was not so ambiguous.

"The Friends of Labor group and Web site exists to defend the interests of our community and our local work force," the fliers said. "Our motto is 'live better, work union, shop local.' "

The leafleting began Monday. It was not clear exactly how many patrons had filled out the fliers and turned them in to cashiers.

But many had, and cashiers were not sure what to do with them. Lacking guidelines from management, some threw them away while others stashed them in their cash drawers.

Many of the store's 250 workers were quietly rooting for the leafleteers as they followed customers pushing carts stacked with lumber, tools and gardening supplies. Several store employees and managers complained about annual raises of less than 50 cents an hour, low morale and poor management.

Donato said the leafleting may soon be expanded to include Home Depot stores in Torrance, Carson, the San Fernando Valley, Portland, Ore., and Seattle.

Other coalition members--including Wal-Mart, Payless ShoeSource, Target stores and Best Buy--could be targeted later.

In the meantime, Home Depot spokeswoman Joanne Chesler said the leafleteers have been told about "our non-solicitation policy and asked to stop. We consider our store to be private property."

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