As contract negotiations continue in private, the West Coast dockworkers union and management in public are becoming increasingly irritated with each other.
More than 26,000 workers at 29 West Coast ports have labored without a contract since July 1 even though talks to reach a new six-year deal began in mid-March between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents 71 international cargo carriers and terminal operators. At the time, both sides were filled with goodwill and the aim to avoid the kind of bitter dispute that paralyzed West Coast ports for 10 days in 2002.
By Monday, it was apparent that frustrations were beginning to mount.
Pacific Maritime Assn. spokesman Steve Getzug , said Monday that productivity at Los Angeles and Long Beach -- the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 cargo container ports -- had dropped by 10% to 15% at some terminals since the union began "unit breaks."
The association says the union usually staggers the two 15-minute breaks that each dockworker gets during each shift so that work continues, but lately it has been having everyone take their breaks at the same time, briefly bringing work to a halt.
Union spokesman Craig Merrilees said that the employers' claim was an exaggeration.
The employers previously were displeased by the union's refusal to temporarily extend the contract while negotiations were continuing.
In 2002, an accusation by the maritime group of a union work slowdown caused a 10-day lockout at all of the West Coast ports. The lockout left ships piling up offshore, unable to unload their cargo, and eventually caused President Bush to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act to force both sides back to the bargaining table. One estimate put the cost of the dispute as high as $15 billion.
Labor experts doubt a repeat is likely given the weakness of the U.S. economy and the inability to tolerate even a much shorter strike or lockout. But tension is inevitable, they said.
"Overall neither side is behaving like they want to bring the industry to a halt. What would precede something like that is people slamming down their fists and marching out of the talks," said Dan Mitchell, a professor of management and public policy at UCLA.
Harley Shaiken, a UC Berkeley professor specializing in labor issues, said both sides were "tired of talking. The frustrations are increasing, but you can't invoke Taft-Hartley over coffee breaks."
In one clear signal of how long the talks have dragged on, the union's Longshore Caucus convened Monday in San Francisco by a long-standing appointment. The caucus is made up of 100 representatives elected by union members to carefully consider any contract that union negotiators want to present to the full union membership for a vote.
The union had hoped that there would be a proposed contract on the table for the caucus to consider, but they don't have one yet.
The eventual contract will cover all 15,068 union members as well as about 11,000 nonunion dockworkers. The two sides have reached agreement on healthcare issues, but other key issues remain unresolved, including use of technology at the ports.