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The Nation | NEWS ANALYSIS

Threat of U.S. Role Aided Port Deal

The union and shipping lines resolved issues with an imposed settlement hanging over them.

November 25, 2002|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

The contract that promises labor peace at West Coast ports for six years was months in the making, but only in the last few weeks did dockworkers and shipping lines move beyond acrimonious posturing to serious deal-making.

The deadlock between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Assn. broke when federal mediators and a veteran AFL-CIO negotiator convinced both sides that any contract they reached on their own would be preferable to one forced on them by Congress or the courts. Under the Taft-Hartley Act, which was invoked by President Bush in early October to restore the flow of transpacific commerce, those options were possibilities.

"When I was able to convince both sides that an imposed settlement was not the way to go, that's when we saw some movement," said a weary Peter J. Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service who jumped into negotiations as they broke down in late September. He had pushed for an agreement by Sunday.

Two other events this month also changed the dynamics of negotiations: Republicans won a majority in both houses of Congress, diluting the union's power in Washington. Then the U.S. attorney's office declined to pursue shipping company claims that the union was orchestrating disruptive slowdowns on the docks, sending a clear message that the industry could not count on further White House intervention.

A deal on the tough issue of technology was announced three weeks ago, leaving pension and wages as the final obstacles to a deal.

Those were resolved over the weekend, when shipping companies agreed to boost pensions by more than 50%, to a maximum benefit of $63,000 per year, according to officials involved in the talks. Wages, which now start at about $27 per hour, will rise by $3 an hour over six years, they said.

For the last several weeks, negotiators regularly worked past midnight as Hurtgen shuttled between conference rooms at a San Francisco hotel.

"There was a tremendous amount of movement," he said. "It was painful, but without the pain I don't think you would have gotten to the end point, which is an agreement that both the parties can live with."

A rank-and-file vote is probable in early January, said union President James Spinosa, who was optimistic the accord would be approved.

"I think once they understand what we've done here they're going to be pleased with the efforts of our negotiating committee," he said Sunday.

The deal would have a substantial effect on marine clerks, who are among the highest-paid dockworkers, earning on average $118,000 last year, according to industry records. They would relinquish control over information flowing into the ports by computer.

Under previous contracts, clerks had the right to retype every cargo list and trucking order as it entered, which port terminal operators said was highly inefficient. An estimated 400 to 600 marine clerk jobs are expected to be eliminated during the next few years as a result. However, the contract guarantees lifetime employment to all 1,600 registered clerks in the union.

In return, the union maintains jurisdiction over all remaining clerk jobs and gains control over certain planning positions, which are now nonunion.

The length of the contract, at six years, is double the term of recent contracts. Lengthy contracts often are viewed as concessions by labor. In this case, however, the amount of time was needed to fund the pension increases sought by union negotiators, Hurtgen said. Shipping lines said the longer contract should help ensure stability as the new technology is implemented.

The contract also sets out a collaborative process for implementing labor-saving technology.

"It requires the parties to sit down and talk about technology, what the process is, how it gets implemented, rather than using the adversarial process of implementing it and then fighting over it," said Joseph Miniace, PMA's president and lead negotiator.

"We are now forcing ourselves to sit down and act like businesspeople taking care of a business that has a lot of public impact," he said.

The conciliatory words Sunday were a far cry from the tough stance Miniace took heading into negotiations last spring, when he warned that shipping companies would not tolerate union slowdowns and were prepared to shut down the ports if they were staged.

In late September, after the union rejected a technology proposal and shipping companies reported signs of a slowdown, Miniace made good on that threat. He closed ports along the coast for 10 days.

They were reopened Oct. 9 under a federal court injunction, after Bush invoked the Taft-Hartley Act for the first time in 24 years. The lockout stranded more than 200 enormous container vessels, disrupted retailers and manufacturers, and underscored the nation's dependence on global trade. About $300 billion in goods, from produce and automobiles to electronics and clothing, flow through West Coast ports each year.

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