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Unions at Ports to Address Rivalry

Labor: Leaders will meet to discuss jurisdiction questions on the West Coast. The dispute has flared as dockworkers seek support in talks with shipping lines.

September 14, 2002|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Several national labor leaders will meet in San Francisco on Sunday hoping to quietly settle a dispute that threatens union solidarity on the West Coast waterfront.

The private meeting is set to bring together the presidents of the dockworkers and machinists unions, with AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka mediating. It highlights a long-running rivalry for jobs at the ports, which flared recently as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union sought labor support in its protracted contract negotiations with shipping lines.

Last week, the International Assn. of Machinists threatened to cross ILWU picket lines if a strike were called unless the jurisdictional questions were resolved. The tussle illustrates the pressure felt by the unions as they attempt to hold on to well-paying blue-collar jobs.

The machinists union claims the ILWU has been raiding its jurisdiction by taking jobs that traditionally were represented by the IAM. At least 300 of its members have lost repair and maintenance jobs on the docks to ILWU members, and as many as 900 more such jobs are at risk. It says the ILWU's current contract proposal would accelerate that job loss.

The longshore union says contract language entitles it to represent mechanics. ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone acknowledged the long-standing dispute and said it was being resolved through the AFL-CIO, the national federation of unions.

But IAM officials said that until they took their complaints public last week, they had been stonewalled by longshore officials.

Last summer, machinists union President Tom Buffenbarger called together leaders of other affected unions, including the International Union of Operating Engineers and the Seafarers International Union, in an attempt "to force the ILWU to cease and desist raiding our jurisdiction of work on the West Coast waterfronts."

Longshore union President James Spinosa declined to meet with the group, saying it would not be "productive or appropriate," but offered in writing to meet with Buffenbarger individually. Sunday will be their first meeting since then.

The dispute dates back more than two decades. Mechanics at the port, who work on cranes, trucks and other equipment, were traditionally represented by the machinists union. But in 1978, the ILWU insisted on contract language that put future maintenance and repair jobs under its jurisdiction. The rapid growth of terminals in recent years has accelerated the transfer of jobs.

Machinists union officials said they were rankled by recent longshore appeals for union solidarity in contract talks with shipping lines and terminal operators, which began in May. Protests by their union and others torpedoed a resolution of solidarity with the ILWU proposed at a California Labor Federation convention this summer. The national AFL-CIO passed a similar resolution weeks later.

A Labor Day march by ILWU members in Wilmington was briefly interrupted by machinists, who unfurled a banner demanding the union "stop raiding our jobs." Days later, machinists in Oakland handed out fliers mocking the longshore union motto, "An injury to one is an injury to all."

The mediation by Trumka, which was confirmed by the AFL-CIO, comes as both unions are embroiled in difficult negotiations centering on job security. The machinists union is considering a strike against Boeing Co. after failing to gain job guarantees in recent contract talks covering 25,000 workers--half the number of just five years ago.

And the longshore union is making little headway in negotiations with West Coast shipping lines and terminal operators, which employ about 10,500 ILWU members. The shipping lines are demanding the introduction of technology that would eliminate hundreds of union jobs.

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