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Mediators Giving Port Talks a Push

Pension benefits appear to be last hurdle as contract negotiations between West Coast dockworkers and shipping firms intensify.

November 23, 2002|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

Under pressure from mediators to reach a deal by the end of the weekend, West Coast dockworkers and shipping companies were expected to negotiate late into the night Friday to try to close the gap on pension benefits -- the final unresolved issue in a hard-fought labor contract.

Top federal mediator Peter J. Hurtgen, who has been leading the talks between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Assn. in San Francisco, planned to return to Washington, D.C., on Monday, said several sources.

Also due back in Washington was AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, who has been described as a moderating force in the talks.

Negotiations would probably resume after the Thanksgiving holiday. Several people close to the talks said the venue could be moved to the nation's capital.

Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service spokesman Jack Toner confirmed that was a possibility, saying, "In years past, sometimes people do get brought into Washington. It's not unheard of. It tends to create more pressure."

Negotiators met until 1 a.m. Friday, and resumed talks in the afternoon. The intense negotiations come as the clock ticks on a federal injunction that has kept ports open since early October, following alleged union slowdowns and a 10-day management lockout.

The disruptions stranded nearly 200 ships off the West Coast, put port truckers out of work, panicked retailers and forced some manufacturers to temporarily close plants for lack of imported parts. More broadly, the dispute exposed the nation's dependence on imported goods. Economists are still assessing the fallout, but estimates of damage have been as high as $1 billion a day. Terminal yards were clogged for more than a month after the shutdown.

The impasse prompted President Bush to invoke the rarely used Taft-Hartley Act to obtain an injunction establishing an 80-day "cooling off" period. It is hoped that the union and shipping companies can agree on a contract during that time.

But despite moments of promise and a breakthrough deal on the introduction of labor-saving technology, the talks have snagged on pensions. The shipping companies in early October offered a plan with maximum benefits of about $50,000 a year to retirees. The union has insisted on a far higher rate, saying the industry will save tens of millions of dollars each year through improved technology.

Both sides have honored a media blackout imposed by Hurtgen in mid-October, so details on current offers are not available.

If no deal is reached by Dec. 7, a Taft-Hartley timetable requires management's final offer to go directly to a vote of union rank and file. Once that process begins, labor experts said, serious negotiations are unlikely.

Officials at the National Labor Relations Board, which would oversee the vote, said they are already making contingency plans. The union's 10,500 dockworkers would be eligible to cast ballots, probably at union hiring halls along the coast.

The election would be held sometime between Dec. 7 and 21, said Hugo Voogd, a deputy in the NLRB legal office. Certified results would then go to the U.S. attorney general by Dec. 26, when the 80-day cooling-off period is due to end.

Michael LeRoy, a professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois, said union members have never approved a contract under the Taft-Hartley election process. The last time the process was used was in 1971, and that too involved the longshore union. That offer by shipping companies was defeated by an overwhelming margin, Voogd said.

Once the injunction ends, there will be no legal restraints to prevent either side from again shutting down the docks, LeRoy said. Congress could intervene, however, and even impose a contract, under a provision of Taft-Hartley that has never been used, he added.

"I think the ultimate lever is the Republican Congress coming into power," he said. Democrats, already on the defensive, are unlikely to take a hard stand on longshore workers, many of whom earn more than $100,000 a year, he said. And there may not be widespread public support for the union when the deal being offered puts pensions far higher than the average U.S. income.

"I think this will have the same sort of thud on working people as the baseball players' anticipated strike," LeRoy said. "There comes a point where people don't sing 'Solidarity Forever.' "

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