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Shutdown Is Intensifying Unions' Rift

Labor: Mechanics and dockworkers have been at odds over which group should be repairing and maintaining equipment at the ports.


The shutdown of West Coast ports is not only wreaking economic damage, it's also exacerbating a long-simmering dispute between separate unions for dockworkers and waterfront mechanics that has ripped apart union solidarity at the ports.

It's a turf battle over which union's members should be fixing and maintaining the cranes, containers and other gear at the ports. The mechanics, represented by the International Assn. of Machinists, are angry because they say the dockworkers union is taking over lucrative jobs once held by IAM members.

The mechanics see the trend worsening because they say the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents the dockworkers, is pressing to win more of the machinists' work as part of the stalled contract talks that led port operators to shut down 29 West Coast ports.

The IAM says about 300 of its members' jobs already have been lost to the other union in recent years, and that the machinists' remaining 900 jobs at West Coast ports are in jeopardy. The unions' dispute also is complicating negotiations between the dockworkers and the port operators, represented by the Pacific Maritime Assn., the IAM said.

In protest, IAM members this week have been crossing picket lines set up by dockworkers. The mechanics allege that they've been met with harassment--and in at least one case, violence--from idled dockworkers at several West Coast waterfronts.

"We've been threatened on virtually every terminal in Oakland," said Don Crosatto, area director of IAM District 190 in Oakland. On Tuesday, one mechanic in Oakland was punched in the jaw by a dockworker as the mechanic drove away from the terminal, Crosatto said.

The ILWU defends its stance, saying its contracts have clearly spelled out for more than two decades which repair and maintenance jobs come under its purview. "We're not asking for their [machinists'] jobs," said ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone. "Where they are working, they have jurisdiction."

As for the reported harassment of IAM workers this week, he said: "How do I comment on an allegation when there's no proof other than the allegation?"

The battle is over some of the better-paying blue-collar jobs in Southern California; annual salaries for experienced port mechanics can range from $65,000 to more than $100,000.

Clay Davis, an IAM mechanic for 37 years who now works on cranes at the Port of Long Beach, said he has been among those taunted by dockworkers after being escorted across ILWU picket lines to and from his job site.

"It's very frustrating; we shouldn't be fighting each other," Davis said. But he said the ILWU's effort threatens his seniority and benefits at a time when he's four years from retirement, and that he told the dockworkers: " 'You guys are trying to steal my job. So why should I honor your picket line?' "

Davis works for Stevedoring Services of America, a privately held port operator based in Seattle that's been a major target of ILWU criticism. But SSA is sticking with the machinists.

"The ILWU wants those jobs and we're not going to agree to that" because "we have a contract with the IAM and we're going to respect our obligations," said Andy McLauchlan, an SSA vice president.

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