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Dockworkers Shore Up Their Case

Union was willing to work while negotiating in good faith.

October 04, 2002|MIGUEL CONTRERAS | Miguel Contreras is executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which negotiates for shippers and port terminal operators, has manufactured a phony crisis to give it increased leverage at the bargaining table against the dockworkers' union. A look at the facts is necessary to understand this cynical scheme.

A lockout by management--allegedly in response to worker slowdowns--began last week. Dockworkers were laboring full bore to unload hundreds of millions of dollars of imported goods bound for retail store shelves for the holiday season.

Wall Street frets that a prolonged lockout will maim an already frail economy. Retailers, growers and manufacturers are pressing President Bush for relief. The anti-union Republican president says he is "worried" and "closely monitoring" events.

How did we get here?

The big stumbling block to a renegotiated labor agreement is technology. Shipping and terminal companies want to replace hundreds of unionized clerks with labor-saving devices, such as bar codes and scanners.

Since the 1960s, when mechanization first became an issue, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has not stood in the way of progress, even as it lost tens of thousands of unionized jobs to technological advances. Labor's only insistence has been that the high-tech workers who remain be protected by union contracts. At stake are good jobs that workers need to preserve a middle-class standard of living.

The maritime association wants the jobs to be nonunion.

One of the problems is that many of the docks are owned by large foreign corporations. Many of these firms are not accustomed to the labor rights and on-the-job protections that American union members have fought--and sometimes died--to win and preserve.

This is a legitimate point of disagreement that can and should be ironed out during negotiations.

Meanwhile, workers want to continue to work while their union continues to talk. Union negotiators have showed up to negotiate. On Wednesday, they even consented to participate in federal mediation, which the union has traditionally opposed.

Rather than bargain in good faith, the maritime association has fabricated a crisis to sabotage bargaining that could lead to a resolution of the outstanding issues.

Dockworkers normally labor in eight-hour shifts. They can choose to work longer hours for overtime pay. Most overtime is earned during flex or night shifts. Last week, the employers cut those premium-pay night shifts, hoping to foment discord and spark worker walkouts or slowdowns to justify a lockout.

There have been no strikes or slowdowns. In response to the elimination of lucrative night shifts, dockworkers pledged to forgo all overtime.

Workers were doing everything they were supposed to do. They showed up for work. They worked their entire regular shifts. They meticulously followed the provisions of their union contract. They were not breaking any company rules. Yet last week, the companies for which the maritime association negotiates locked out all the dockworkers and shut down ports up and down the West Coast.

On Tuesday, maritime association executives showed up with armed bodyguards at a session with the head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. It was a slap in the face to union leaders, who angrily walked out of the meeting. Mediation service director Peter Hurtgen called the use of bodyguards "inappropriate and a breach of bargaining protocol."

Economists project billions of dollars in losses to the economy if the lockout persists. Truckers and workers in a host of related industries are facing genuine hardship. Retailers are frantic as holiday merchandise sits stranded offshore on ships.

All of this could be avoided if the maritime association negotiated an equitable contract with the dockworkers' union instead of putting the nation's economy at risk to boost its clout at the bargaining table.

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