Thursday, November 21, 2002

Dockworkers predict
contract by year’s end

Federally mediated talks end Dec. 27,
opening the door for another cargo halt

By Justin Pritchard
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO >> Officials with the West Coast dockworkers' union have suggested their bitter contract dispute with shipping lines could be resolved by year's end -- in time to meet a federal mediator's deadline and avert another shutdown of major Pacific ports.

The chief Washington lobbyist for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union predicted this week that the two sides will agree to a contract before federally mediated talks end Dec. 27.

Lindsay McLaughlin said at a conference of importers and exporters he believed the union and the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and port terminal operators, could build on a recent compromise to equip the waterfront with new cargo-tracking technology and sign a comprehensive deal.

"I am certain that as surely as we were able to find mutually acceptable compromises on technology, we will be able to do the same on pensions," McLaughlin told the National Industrial Transportation League's meeting in Anaheim. "This is true for the few remaining issues that divide us right now."

That assessment broke a public silence over the talks, which are taking place in San Francisco under a press blackout called by federal mediator Peter Hurtgen.

Citing the blackout, spokesmen for the union and maritime association declined comment yesterday, except to say that the two sides were scheduled to meet.

But a few things are known.

Pensions are on the table and federal actuaries from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. have reviewed several proposals. The maritime association has offered a maximum annual benefit that exceeds $55,000 -- the 10,500-member union has suggested that a figure closer to $69,000 would suffice.

Assessments of progress or impasse at the bargaining table seem to change by the day and what seemed like a deal one afternoon can turn into an impasse by morning.

Should the union and association agree on pensions, next up is the arbitration system that resolves contract interpretation disputes.

The two sides must establish a process to replace current arbitrator Sam Kagel. Widely respected, Kagel has held his post for decades but is now in his 90s.

Of course, arbitration may never come up if the fragile technology deal doesn't hold.

Hurtgen's greatest feat thus far has been the Nov. 1 agreement that increased the union's control over some cargo planning jobs in exchange for the introduction of computer technology that will speed containers across the docks but cost around 400 unionized clerk jobs in the short run.

But one of the most influential members of the association, Seattle-based Stevedoring Services of America, has been ambivalent over the fragile deal.

On Tuesday, 30 employees in its Salt Lake City office who would lose their job under the technology deal filed a National Labor Relations Board complaint against the union and the association.

The workers said the technology deal -- which is not official until a contract is signed -- violated their rights "to refrain from unionization."

Both the association and union dismissed the complaint. It has symbolic import, however, especially given SSA President Jon Hemingway's reaction.

"We understand and support our employee's efforts to protect their interests," Hemingway said in a written statement. "We are proud of all our operation employees who continue to deal with the adversity of this protracted negotiation without compromising their principles."

Meanwhile, West Coast ports appear to be wrapping up the Christmas import season like a present under the tree. Turnaround times for ships at the Port of Long Beach -- which with Los Angeles forms the nation's largest complex -- are back to normal, port officials said.

Pacific Maritime Association

International Longshore and Warehouse Union

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