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Port Negotiations a Battle for Control

Labor: With the push for efficient technology at West Coast terminals, the main dispute is over who will oversee the flow of information.


The labor dispute playing havoc with West Coast docks has never been about pay or benefits. What's at stake in the battle between shipping lines and dockworkers is who will control port operations from San Diego to Seattle and, in the long run, the fate of one of the last powerful unions in America.

For four months, the titans have been wrestling over questions that, when viewed individually, may seem insignificant, even petty. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Assn. have spent weeks on arcane language that spells out how to introduce equipment such as scanners and sensors rather than on such traditional issues as wages. Tempers have flared over the union's insistence that a few hundred computer operators be brought under the contract that already covers 10,500 dockworkers.

Taken together, however, these issues will determine who controls the information that is crucial to keeping cargo flowing through modern ports. And one thing on which both sides agree is that, in an age of computers, bar codes and remote cameras, controlling such knowledge is power.

"We know this technology is coming," said one union official who asked not to be named. "We want to anticipate how it's going to be used and be sure we're involved in it. We're talking about our survival."

Carriers and stevedoring companies that annually move billions of dollars of goods through the ports say they are desperate to improve efficiency, the key to cutting costs. They argue they could achieve that if the union would allow them to use available technology.

"A lot of information, such as the content of containers, is on Web sites already," said Tom Edwards, a PMA manager in Northern California who has been directly involved in negotiations. "It can be sent electronically from shippers and enters the terminal's data base, so that when the container arrives at the terminal, all the information is there, and they can change that information at any time electronically. It's done seamlessly."

Such faster information is important to speeding up the flow of traffic through the terminals. Under the current longshore contract, however, all documentation in the terminal must originate with union clerks. That language, which shipping lines consider archaic, has been used repeatedly by the union to justify retyping cargo information into the terminal computer system--even if it is already available electronically. Shipping lines have fought the re-keying issue for years through arbitration but have repeatedly lost.

In what it described as a major concession, the union agreed in the current talks to give up some language so information could flow freely from shipping lines around the world to port terminals.

Once there, however, the union wants guarantees that only union clerks could review, correct or change data. Carriers "want that somebody else can get into the operating system and start doing the work even after the information comes into the terminal," said ILWU spokesman Steve Stallone.

"If they're allowed to do that, then our clerks don't have any work anymore," Stallone said. "We lose the control over the information, which is a significant part of the power of the union and a major part of our jobs."

The fight over the flow of information in the terminal is just one of several thorny and complex issues that both sides have deadlocked on in recent months, all centering on control.

The union also wants the shipping lines to expand union jurisdiction to certain planning jobs, such as the layout of containers on a ship. Many of those jobs are performed remotely, as far away as Utah or Arizona. The union insists that such planning jobs are part of the documentation chain, and thus belong in the union.

The shipping lines disagree, and say those jobs were never part of the union's jurisdiction.

The dispute involves only about 80 jobs, but they are key to the orderly departure and arrival of ships--and both parties say it is a nonnegotiable item.

A third issue that neither side says it will blink on is minimum staffing levels for clerks. The union's technology proposal calls for specific numbers of clerks to check in trucks at gates, or to monitor the flow of containers through the yard. The shipping lines say the numbers are inflated--that for example, one clerk can handle five truck gates at a time, rather than two. The union insists the minimums are necessary to prevent the jobs from speeding up and becoming more difficult.

Industry officials say they have given in on such demands in the past, but are determined to stand fast in this round. They say the long-term health of U.S. ports is at stake because inefficient ports could drive shippers to Mexico or elsewhere.

The union, however, justifies its concerns over control and jurisdiction by pointing to other former labor heavyweights, such as the United Steel Workers of America, which once controlled an industry but now struggles for relevancy.

That is not an irrational concern--or unique to the longshore workers, said labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein of UC Santa Barbara.

"This is a classic issue in industrial society, going back more than 100 years," he said. "Technology is always changing, and the question becomes who is going to do what work. Unions often want to use their leverage to move into something else, and management often fiercely resists that. It's classic."


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