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Making Waves on the Waterfront

Labor: As a Monday contract deadline looms, shippers and dockworkers are trying to find common ground on issues of job security and technology.


On one side of the table sits a tough, deliberative, tradition-bound union determined to protect some of the last great blue-collar jobs in America.

On the other is an increasingly powerful and impatient group of multinational corporations driven to move merchandise ever faster as transpacific trade explodes.

The gulf between them--which has grown through years of distrust, resentment and misunderstanding--at times seems as wide as the ocean that separates California and Asia.

That divide now colors every move in the high-stakes contract negotiations between the Pacific Maritime Assn., representing ocean carriers and stevedoring services, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Talks covering 10,500 dockworkers along the West Coast began a month ago in San Francisco, but have yielded little. The current contract expires at 5 p.m. Monday.

Each side has gripes: Ocean carriers claim the union operates under cumbersome, 40-year-old rules and has been slow to accept technological changes that could save them millions of dollars. Workers claim the shipping lines want to chip away at their strength by moving highly paid jobs to nonunion contractors, reducing health benefits and eliminating the union's revered hiring halls.

Some of the toughest points, however, are ambiguous and emotional, and they cannot be resolved with a clause in a contract. That became clear during two recent tours of a major Los Angeles port terminal, guided alternately by representatives of management and labor with the intent of clarifying contract issues.

From the start, it was evident that these were starkly different cultures. High-level union officials debated for a week before agreeing to the tour and establishing ground rules. The PMA made arrangements in a day, with only one condition: The shipping line that opened its doors could not be named. "If we say anything that makes the union mad," a supervisor said, "they can make life hell for us."

The foreign-owned line operates one of the largest and most modern of 14 terminals in the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex. Covering 300 acres, it can accommodate three mega-ships at a time, each one carrying several thousand steel containers the size of railroad cars.

On a recent Thursday morning, the terminal hummed with activity. Trucks rumbled along lanes of containers, which were stacked three-high by machines resembling giant forklifts. At the water's edge, long-limbed cranes plucked multi-ton boxes from ships' decks, then set them down on a truck chassis with a thunderous boom. Two minutes later, the same crane dropped another load. Then another and another.

Strict Work Rules

The scene was noisy, outsized and frenetic. Then, at 11:30 a.m., it came to a sudden halt. Time for lunch.

Industry consultant Frank Hanley, who was leading the management tour, chuckled and shook his head. He couldn't have asked for a better demonstration of the union's power.

As the average U.S. workweek grew through the 1990s, and 24-hour operations and staggered shifts became routine, the ILWU managed to maintain work rules much as they existed a generation ago. They include a common hour-long lunch break, double-pay for night shifts and the guarantee of a work pace that the union calls healthy and sustainable, but the shippers deride as simply slow.

ILWU members are among the highest-paid blue-collar employees in the nation, with basic longshore workers earning an average of $80,000 last year, including overtime, and union foremen taking in $158,000.

"That's not middle income, that's upper income," said Hanley, who once managed terminals in Hong Kong and Oakland for a U.S. ocean carrier, but left the company several years ago after it was bought by a Singapore-based freight line. Part of a wave of consolidations that shifted most major shipping lines on the West Coast to foreign ownership, the sale nudged many veteran employees such as Hanley into early retirement.

His task that day was to show how new electronic devices could speed up the freight-moving process, boosting productivity and profits and making way for the growth of international trade. The PMA says the union has blocked such technology to protect jobs.

First stop was the terminal's main entrance. On an average day, trucks pass through its gates 3,000 times to deliver containers for export or, more commonly, empties that once carried consumer goods from Asia.

Each "gate move" must be documented, and the driver assigned to a spot on the crowded terminal grounds. How that transaction happens is one of the most contentious issues in the contract talks.

Shippers claim most of the information, such as origin, destination and contents of the container, could be collected electronically by optical scanners that read codes stamped on the side. But they say the union insists on manually keying in much of the data, and staffing the gates as they have for decades: with one highly paid clerk for each of the 10 entry lanes.

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