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Two Lead Change at Ports During Critical Juncture

One frontman unites employers to push for new technology

November 10, 2002|Michael A. Hiltzik | Times Staff Writer

He's a former corporate human resources specialist who peppers his speech with mild expressions like "gosh" and "holy mackerel," a man who had no maritime experience when he took over the West Coast port employers group six years ago.

But as president of the Pacific Maritime Assn., Joseph N. Miniace has emerged as a bare-knuckled negotiator unafraid to back up his words with action -- just as he did Sept. 27 when he locked 10,500 dockworkers out of terminals from San Diego to Seattle.

The lockout -- the first since the PMA was founded in 1948 -- produced the longest work stoppage on West Coast docks since a five-month strike in 1971. It provoked a rare federal back-to-work order under the Taft-Hartley Act, which eventually led to an accord Nov. 1 over the most contentious issue between longshoremen and management: how to roll out labor-saving technology to make the ports more efficient without cutting too deeply into union jurisdiction. The two sides remain far apart, however, on a pension package.

In the weeks leading up to and during the lockout, Miniace made it clear that his goal was to extract concessions on technology to boost productivity. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has resisted such change for years, he contended, but the future competitiveness of the ports depends on it.

ILWU officials regarded Miniace as the frontman for an ill-concealed attempt to break the union.

Whether Miniace has achieved his goal by instituting the lockout and holding negotiations under government pressure may not be known until a final contract with the ILWU is reached -- or even before the next round of negotiations gets underway less than three years from now.

What is indisputable is that Miniace's 1996 appointment as PMA president presaged a dramatic change in the dynamics of labor relations on the docks. Union officials say the employers organization has become progressively more confrontational, a change that culminated with the lockout.

That the habitually complaisant employers' organization would take such a dramatic and costly step shocked port observers. "Not a lot of people believed Mr. Miniace when he said he would lock out" the workers, said Susan Kohn Ross, a Los Angeles attorney specializing in port issues.

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Plans for Lockout

In truth, Miniace had been preparing his membership for the lockout for years. He personally jawboned the top executives of the steamship lines and stevedoring companies that make up the PMA, traveling to corporate headquarters around the world from his San Francisco office, urging the member companies to prepare to take short-term financial losses in return for lasting change on the docks.

"We talked about it at length," the 56-year-old Miniace said in a recent interview, referring to the discussions he held upon taking office with top executives at the PMA's most important member firms. "The economic hammer that the ILWU had held over the industry during negotiations has been significant over the last few years."

The more than 70 shipping lines and terminal operators that make up the PMA, he added, "understand that if they are going to deal with power, they have to have their own power."

Central to achieving that end has been Miniace's effort during the last six years to refashion the PMA, long an unwieldy coalition, into a professional organization capable of keeping a united front in talks with the monolithic union.

Lending urgency to his task is the conviction among many association members that it had come out on the short side of the last two contract negotiations.

"In '96 and '99 we rolled on every ... thing [the union] wanted and got nothing in return," said G. Scott Jones, chairman of General Steamship Corp. and a former PMA board member. "The question was, would we have the guts to stand together this time and get things done?"

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Shutdowns Avoided

Even before 1996, PMA sources say, some board members were concerned about what they saw as the PMA's habit of appeasing the union in quest of labor peace.

The organization had long been dominated by steamship companies for which labor costs were a relatively small part of total expenses, and whose main concern was to avoid shutdowns at any price so that ships and goods could keep moving. Their relative complaisance over labor issues put them at odds with more-militant employers, including terminal operators such as Stevedoring Services of America, whose loading and unloading responsibilities are labor-intensive and thus are more sensitive to wage and union-jurisdiction issues.

"One thing the steamship lines detest is downtime in the harbor," said Daniel J. Olson, a labor-relations specialist at the University of Washington. In previous negotiations, the PMA's solid front often had crumbled under pressure from the steamship lines to keep the ports operating.

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