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Huge Stakes in Port Talks

November 15, 2002

Labor strife that closed West Coast ports for 10 days in October took a painful bite out of the national economy. So those with livelihoods tied to the waterfront breathed easier Nov. 1 when shipping companies and West Coast dockworkers reached tentative agreement on their toughest issue, the introduction of new labor-saving technology.

But nothing is easy on the waterfront.

Hopes for a quick end to the dispute evaporated when the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, said they were miles apart on a pension proposal. After a weeklong break, federally sanctioned mediation sessions resumed Wednesday.

The federal government's push to get both sides talking faltered Oct. 2 when management brass inexplicably showed up with armed bodyguards and union negotiators left in a huff. The maritime association began lobbing allegations of an illegal slowdown by union members. A cooler atmosphere was in evidence a month later when closed-door sessions conducted by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service produced a tentative agreement on the introduction of electronic scanners and other devices already used overseas.

New technology will eliminate hundreds of union-represented jobs, so each remaining job triggers a bigger fight over pay and benefits. The Wal-Marts of the world are pressing shipping lines to use technology to trim costs. Longshore workers are pushing equally hard for a piece of those savings. That's part of what is fueling the pension dispute; past negotiations have taught the union to demand something in return when jobs are cut.

These aren't new issues. Negotiating teams answered equally thorny questions that arose as powerful cranes and cargo containers reshaped the waterfront years ago. And labor peace prevailed for three decades because both sides were willing to negotiate.

The economic effect of the last port strike, in 1971, was relatively minor. But 43% of the country's oceangoing shipping containers now pass through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. In a "just in time" manufacturing world, containers serve as oceangoing warehouses, so waterfront labor strife quickly causes pain nationwide.

The Bush administration used the Taft-Hartley Act to win a court order to keep the ports operating until late December. Management and labor must use the remaining window to work with federal mediators toward a settlement. The alternative is to drive business away from Southern California ports and further damage the national economy. Neither side wants the blame for that.

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