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Dockworkers Walk Out of Contract Talks

Ports: West Coast shipping lines prepare for immediate slowdowns as labor agreement expires.

September 02, 2002|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Union negotiators for West Coast dockworkers walked out of contract talks with major shipping lines Sunday, opening the door to a work slowdown at ports from Long Beach to Seattle as early as Tuesday.

After extending it for two months, the union allowed the labor contract covering 10,500 members to expire at 5 p.m. Sunday, setting the stage for job actions.

"It means we are not bound by any agreement and we can legitimately take job actions any time we feel like it," said Steve Stallone, chief spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. A full strike is at least two weeks away, however, because union rules call for balloting by mail.

Stallone said union officials would make no decisions until Tuesday, when negotiators return from Labor Day rallies planned along the coast.

The employers group is bracing for immediate slowdowns at the 29 ports along the coast, according to a statement from the Pacific Maritime Assn., which is negotiating for the union carriers.

It said that similar slowdowns were staged during the last round of negotiations five years ago but that the stakes are higher now because of enormous growth in foreign trade.

Before talks began in May, PMA President Joseph Miniace warned that employers would lock out union workers if they attempted to slow down the movement of goods.

On Sunday he laid the blame for any future disruptions at the union's feet.

"The union just fired the first shot," Miniace said.

"They opened the door to work slowdowns, which we have said time and again will not be tolerated."

The Bush administration has indicated that it would invoke the Taft-Hartley Act to force union members back to work for 80 days in the event of a strike.

On Sunday, each side blamed the other for the breakdown in negotiations in San Francisco, which came after several days of promising discussions on health benefits.

Stallone said negotiators planned to sign a tentative agreement on benefits Sunday morning but balked when employers wanted to change the language on arbitration.

The employers group, however, said talks disintegrated when the union refused to compromise on the introduction of labor-saving technology.

The union is at odds with shippers over the introduction of new technology, which operators say will boost profitability and competitiveness but which ILWU officials claim is a pretext for outsourcing union jobs to lower-paid contractors.

ILWU members are among the highest-paid union workers in the nation.

The talks have been seen as crucial because the ports involved, including Long Beach and Los Angeles, represent some $300 billion in U.S. trade annually.

Last month the White House said it would consider intervening to prevent a strike. Such a suggestion angered union officials, who accused the Bush administration of siding with port employers and undermining the ILWU's bargaining position.

Union workers authorized their negotiating committee last month to call a strike vote for ports.

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Times wire services were used in compiling this report.

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