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TROUBLE ON THE WATERFRONT

Sides Argue Over Safety vs. Speed

Labor: To dockworkers it's 'working safe,' while shipping lines see it as a waterfront slowdown.

October 09, 2002|LOUIS SAHAGUN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Union leaders call it "working safe," making sure every safety rule at the ports is followed to the letter.

For their part, company officials say those are just code words for dockworkers slowing down and gumming up their operations.

As the International Longshore and Warehouse Union prepared to go back to work as early as tonight after a lockout at 29 West Coast ports, the distinction between working safely and working slowly still loomed as a potential source of trouble.

The Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents shipping lines and terminal operators, has vowed to seek sanctions against the union in the event of slowdowns.

But the ILWU has claimed there's good reason for "working safe": five deaths among its members so far this year, compared with one or two deaths a year normally.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday October 12, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 344 words Type of Material: Correction
Dockworkers--A story in Wednesday's Business section on dockworker fatalities misspelled the first name of Giuliano Solari and incorrectly reported his date of death. He died March 4.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday October 16, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 6 inches; 222 words Type of Material: Correction
Waterfront fatality -- An Oct. 9 Business story on waterfront fatalities did not include the occupation of Giuliano Solari. Solari, who was fatally injured at the Port of Los Angeles on March 4, was an engineer.

Union members contend that as cargo shipments have grown, so has the danger.

In 2001, more than 142 million tons of goods, from frozen chicken feet to tennis shoes, moved through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's largest harbor complex.

That's four times the tonnage reported in 1980, according to the maritime group.

America's appetite for cheap imported goods is driving demand for bigger vessels, which require more-powerful tugboats, larger terminals with longer wharves, bigger cranes, faster trains and more big rigs than ever to handle the freight.

"Anymore, when you get nudged by something in the port you get crushed or maimed," said Tom Harrison, president of ILWU Local 63. "So we try to stand in conspicuous places where there's room to run or back away without running into a machine or a wall."

Union leaders cited the deaths last month when they began to "work safe" amid stalled contract talks.

Pacific Maritime Assn. officials claimed the union's action was an orchestrated disruption to show its displeasure with negotiations, and ultimately ordered a lockout Sept. 29--shutting down the ports.

The five deaths among ILWU members include one in Oregon and four in California. In addition, two non-ILWU workers have also died on the job at California ports this year, according to the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

By comparison, there has been an average of about one port worker death a year in California for the last decade--although in 1997, there were five deaths, said Cal-OSHA spokeswoman Susan Gard.

Of the six California fatalities this year, five occurred at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. There were no worker fatalities at the complex in 2000 and 2001.

State and federal safety officials who are investigating this year's accidents say they don't appear to follow any pattern.

"The number of fatal accidents we've seen this year is raising concerns," said Dean Fryer, a spokesman for Cal-OSHA. "But they involved different employers, different kinds of machinery and different circumstances at different times of the year."

The maritime association said that it would be a mistake to try to draw sweeping conclusions from the spike in deaths this year.

"These are unfortunate situations--an anomaly--and they are being investigated by the appropriate agencies," said Tom Edwards, the Northern California regional manager for the maritime association and a member of its contract negotiating team.

Nonetheless, with the ports expected to reopen tonight, the union has raised the prospect that slowdowns in the name of safety will persist.

"We're going to continue to work safe," union President James Spinosa told reporters Monday, when asked how the union would handle the reopening. "Five people being killed on the waterfront in that short a time has to be reckoned with," he said. "And if that's a slowdown, then that's a slowdown, but that's the way we're going to work. We're going to work safe."

On Tuesday, after a federal judge ordered the ports to reopen, ILWU negotiator Joseph Wenzel declared: "Folks are going back to work in a safe manner." He acknowledged that any resulting drop in productivity could land the union back in court but said, "We'll defend ourselves by any means necessary."

When asked Tuesday about the maritime group's response to a slowdown, spokesman Steve Sugerman said, "We'll cross that bridge when we get there."

But association President Joseph Miniace has made it clear that the shipping lines have detailed productivity records they are ready to show to a judge if the work pace slows.

Luisa Gratz, president of the ILWU's Local 26, which has lost two members since March, says that "management is more interested in the bottom line and profit than in saving lives in many cases."

"The harbor is an extremely busy, dangerous place to work," she said.

"You've got terminals servicing three vessels at once with huge cranes, trains and hundreds of big rigs. All around them are vehicles and forklifts searching for, picking up and dropping off multi-ton containers."

The management group, however, says technological changes being resisted by the union could improve safety.

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