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Beyond the Waterfront

October 01, 2002

When 29 West Coast ports that handle about half of the nation's oceangoing cargo shut down, the already shaky U.S. economy shuddered. Eighteen-wheelers sit idle, dispatchers twiddle their thumbs and retailers wonder if they'll get merchandise to fill their shelves.

That's why longshoremen and the shipping lines that pay them owe it to Americans to accept the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service's offer to attempt a brokered settlement to the ongoing labor dispute that on Sunday led the association that represents ship owners to close the ports.

Mediation is voluntary. It can take months to generate results while workers continue at their jobs. But the lockout is costing the ailing economy an estimated $1 billion daily.

The Bush administration, despite its recent overtures to labor with its steel tariffs and courtship of the carpenters union, has signaled its willingness to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act and force ports to reopen for an 80-day cooling-off period.

This isn't just a West Coast fight. What happens here will set the template for Eastern ports in 2004. The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents international shipping lines and U.S. ports, wants control over clusters of low-paying clerical jobs being created by automation. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union worries that it will lose members unless it absorbs the jobs created as automated cranes read shipping labels and hand-held scanners replace labor-intensive pencil-and-paper systems. UC Santa Barbara professor Nelson N. Lichtenstein describes the clash as a classic case of workers pushing to claim jobs the new technology generates--while owners focus on cost-cutting.

Longshoremen believe that they must, as an East Coast union leader recently said, "capture any and all work relating to the movement of cargo on and off the docks." The ship owners and port facility operators are as adamant that they will control the changing face of labor on the waterfront.

Management should recognize that some jobs merit inclusion in the union. The union, meanwhile, needs to reassess the support that its well-paid members would win from other unions, independent truck drivers, factory workers and others whose paychecks could be jeopardized by a strike.

Mediation would give both sides time to find a middle ground. Management has agreed to meet with federal mediators. Union leaders should join them at the table and make every effort to avoid a strike that would disrupt manufacturing at U.S. plants that rely on imported parts--as well as frustrate consumers who buy everything from imported cars to electronics, garments and housewares.

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