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Reaching Ports Deal Made More Difficult by History, Emotion

Negotiations: Not even intervention can heal the union and shipping lines' mutual distrust.


With the national economy holding its breath and a federal mediator working through the weekend, why couldn't the shipping lines and longshore union make a deal?

There are dozens of small reasons, from the union's insistence on controlling all technology- related jobs to the employers' adamant refusal to set minimum staffing levels on terminal yards.

But the ones that matter most are broad and deep and seemingly intractable, weighed down by history and emotion. And that is something federal intervention will be hard pressed to resolve.

The union claims that employers want to outsource their jobs and dilute its power. Employers claim that the union is blocking basic technology needed to bring the West Coast ports up to international standards. Neither side takes the other at its word.

"You can't trust them," said David Arian, a past president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and a current member of the negotiating committee, as he picked through the shipping lines' latest proposal. "There's a new faction in there trying to break this union. That's what this is all about."

Among members of the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, the heat is equally intense.

"I've been here 37 years and I've watched this union deteriorate," said one shipping company executive, explaining why he and others decided to stand fast in these negotiations. "It's not what it was years ago. When people come to work now, all they care about is when they're going home and what kind of deal they make."

Those emotions are surfacing at a time when new technologies in ocean shipping are throwing the question of control up in the air.

No longer must clerks note the movement of a container off a ship and through the yard with pen and paper, or even a laptop computer. That data now can be entered at the port of origin and transferred electronically. A scanner then can note the number of the container as it is unloaded. Each subsequent move can be tracked by sensors, scanners and remote cameras, to the point the container leaves the terminal.

And there goes the power of marine clerks, a relatively small group of longshore members who are among the highest paid in the union.

Clerks contend that as their power wanes, so does the union's clout--and eventually its members' enviable pay and benefits.

From the beginning, both sides made it clear that technology and control, rather than wages and benefits, were at the forefront of negotiations.

Since talks opened in May, they have not been easy. Each side gave wildly different interpretations to proposals that passed back and forth, usually claiming it had given the other "exactly what they wanted" or was getting a deceptive deal.

Then came slowdowns by union workers that cut productivity on the docks by half, followed by the lockout of a week ago. When a federal mediator finally was able to bring both sides together at a San Francisco hotel Thursday, bad blood already was running thick.

By all accounts, the talks started on a promising note. But that mood soon dissipated. Meanwhile, federal mediator Peter Hurtgen was losing patience, and the threat of federal intervention became increasingly real.

"We were told when we started that we were on a very short leash," said Joseph Miniace, president of the shipping group. "Then we were told that the leash got shorter. By the end, we were on a choke collar."

As economic and political pressure mounted, each side waited for the other to give in. On Sunday, the union handed over a proposal that the shipping group said contained old, unacceptable language calling for minimum staffing levels.

Then Sunday night, as Hurtgen threatened to leave, the shipping group presented a final proposal that, on the surface, seemed to give the union everything it wanted.

Along with a healthy pension increase and substantial wage gains for some skilled equipment operators, the proposal also would guarantee full-time employment for life for all registered union marine clerks.

In what it described as a significant concession, the shipping group granted the union jurisdiction over some planning jobs that currently are nonunion. But the group did not turn over crucial vessel-planning jobs, which the union had sought.

One contentious section would change the arbitration process, putting all disputes concerning technology before a coast-wide arbitrator, who would be chosen by both sides from the National Academy of Arbitrators. The union insists that someone from the shipping industry be the coast-wide arbitrator, and it suggested a former union president as a possibility.

Another key paragraph covers control of computer systems related to terminal operations and says that any such data should be administered by a union clerk. But a union spokesman said because those job duties and functions are not clearly defined in the language, they eventually could be lost to off-site nonunion operations.

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