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Two Lead Change at Ports During Critical Juncture

Union leader seeks to protect jobs but heralds innovation

November 10, 2002|Dan Weikel | Times Staff Writer

If longshore workers are lords of the docks, James Spinosa is lord of lords.

As head of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the veteran marine clerk leads 10,500 West Coast laborers who load and unload the raw materials, cars, clothes, computers, toys and other consumer goods that propel the economies of the Pacific Rim.

He rose to power in the late 1990s, during one of the union's most rancorous periods. Now he presides over the ILWU at a crucial juncture in its history -- just as the union's charismatic founder, Harry Bridges, did 40 years ago when he supported the containerization of cargo, revolutionizing the maritime industry at the cost of thousands of waterfront jobs.

Today, shipping lines and terminal operators are demanding concessions from Spinosa to allow the use of computers and electronic gear to precisely track containers from ship to customer, which would eliminate hundreds of union jobs.

How such modernization will be implemented on the docks has led to a costly and protracted contract dispute with the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, many of them giant foreign-owned companies with global reach.

On Nov. 1, the union and the employer group reached a compromise on the critical issue of technology, a key break in the stalemate that has disrupted West Coast cargo operations for more than a month.

Specific terms of the deal were not released, but people familiar with the compromise say the tentative agreement basically allows the use of new technology while extending union jurisdiction and guaranteeing jobs for life to workers who might be displaced.

Throughout the negotiations, Spinosa has performed a delicate balancing act between applying technology on the docks and protecting union jobs -- in this case those of hundreds of marine clerks, such as himself, who track cargo through the ports.

"Spinosa has tried to tell the union that taking a Luddite approach is a loser," said Peter Olney, a former organizing director for the ILWU who helps run the Institute of Labor and Employment at the University of California. "He has taken a lot of political hits for trying to convince the clerks to accept technology. But he will not sign a contract that is the union's death warrant."

The labor agreement has not been finalized, and more difficult negotiating might be ahead when both sides return to the bargaining table Wednesday after a one-week hiatus ordered last Tuesday by the federal mediator. The ILWU and the companies are still at an impasse over the issue of worker pensions.


'Determined to Win'

Whether the ILWU will prevail in the talks is yet to be seen. But those who know Spinosa, both inside and outside the union, say he is well-suited to lead the union through troubled waters.

"Jimmy is tough, persistent and patient," said Van Barbieri, 62, of Rancho Palos Verdes, a real estate agent who has been friends with Spinosa since they attended San Pedro High School in the late 1950s. "He is bound and determined to win. Knowing his nature, he won't back down from anybody."

Spinosa's attitude might be summed up by a watercolor cartoon that hangs in his office at ILWU headquarters in San Francisco. Barbieri gave it to him. The rendering depicts a bird that has taken a frog into its large beak and is preparing to swallow it head first. The amphibian's front legs have the bird's neck in a stranglehold.

"Don't ever give up," the caption states.

Even those on the other side of the bargaining table concede that Spinosa's 40 years as a dockworker and union official make him a formidable adversary. He might be reserved and inarticulate in public, they say, but he knows the maritime industry, and he knows where he wants to go.

Spinosa "is a shrewd, ruthless guy and good at what he does," said G. Scott Jones, a shipping company executive who served on the board of the Pacific Maritime Assn. for 32 years. "He is not really a leader like Harry Bridges was a leader. He is more in the back room, pulling the controls."

Despite repeated requests by The Times, Spinosa declined to be interviewed for this article.

Union spokesman Steve Stallone said the president has been devoting his time -- 12 to 14 hours a day -- to contract negotiations and a pending court battle over whether the union deliberately staged work slowdowns after the lockout.

In his unavailability to the news media, Spinosa stands in sharp contrast to his counterpart in the shipping industry, Joseph N. Miniace, head of the maritime association.

While Miniace has been willing to talk directly to news reporters and answer questions, Spinosa has stuck to prepared statements.


Public Relations Battle

Some well-placed members of the ILWU worry that the union has been losing the public relations battle with the maritime association. One local at the Port of Los Angeles recently hired a public-relations representative, and the AFL-CIO briefly lent the ILWU a spokeswoman to help with the media.

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