Politics reins ILWU
leverage at negotiations

Bush administration is viewed
as being management friendly

Affected West Coast ports

By Justin Pritchard
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO >> Contract negotiations are about leverage, so it's no wonder West Coast dock workers have enjoyed good results at the bargaining table in recent years.

If the 10,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union strike, every port on the West Coast shuts down. Though there's been no such walkout since 1971, that bargaining muscle has earned longshoremen salaries that averaged $80,000 last year for full-time work.

But with their contract again up for renewal, a pro-business White House and concerns about national security -- both physical and economic -- have changed the psychology of current negotiations. As a result, the union has made several moves that it didn't concede during the prior negotiations in 1996 and 1999.

There are several reasons why the shipping lines have more leverage this year.

Unlike negotiations under union-friendly Bill Clinton, President Bush is considered pro-business.

If there's a strike or lockout, the White House can impose an 80-day cooling-off period that would keep ports open and force both sides back to the table. Union supporters say that helps employers, and suspect Bush wouldn't hesitate to become the first president to make that move since Jimmy Carter intervened in a 1978 coal strike.

"There's a general sense that labor laws will be enforced in a way that are more pro management," said Fred Feinstein, Clinton's general counsel at the National Labor Relations Board and now a senior fellow at the University of Maryland. "That is the psychological context."

Labor Department spokeswoman Kathleen Harrington said yesterday that "We're definitely in the mode of urging both parties to act in the best interest of the country."

One group that lobbied the White House on behalf of importers and exporters found a friendly ear when it reported how a port shutdown would disrupt the supply chain to American consumers.

"Obviously this was something that resonated with the Bush administration," said Robin Lanier, executive director of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, a group representing importers and exporters that was formed in 2000. "That's kind of an easy sell."

West Coast ports handled $260 billion worth of goods last year, according to the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines.

In addition, the shipping association has seized on post-Sept. 11 concerns about security in an attempt to gain the rhetorical high ground.

"Reaching a contract agreement and keeping our ports open is crucial to the nation's economy and national security," the association said in a statement July 1, the day the contract expired.

Union leaders have tried to counter that argument by asserting they are simply bargaining under federal law -- and there's nothing unpatriotic about that.

"You can't bash us and American laborers as some kind of economic terrorists, because we have rights," union President Jim Spinosa said in an interview during a port workers rally last month. "We're not out to destroy America. We are America."

Still political pressure has prompted longshoremen to do things differently this year.

First, longshoremen agreed to extend the contract "day to day" -- unlike 1996 and 1999, when they worked without a contract. The maritime association wanted that deal to give a sense that progress was being made.

Both sides agreed to another such 24-hour extension yesterday. Major sticking points include benefits and the introduction of new technology that the association says will make ports more efficient and secure but longshoremen worry is a way to outsource jobs.

Second, after shipping lines said they'd lock out workers if they staged a work slowdown, longshoremen promised to work at their normal rate. The association said longshoremen staged slowdowns during the past negotiations, a claim the dock workers deny.

Both of those agreements have "changed the climate in these negotiations," maritime association spokesman Jack Suite said Tuesday. A union spokesman said yesterday he could not discuss the subject of bargaining leverage.

It's unclear which side would suffer if a labor disruption deprives Americans of a steady flow of cheap goods shipped from Asia.

But, all things considered, it could be hard for the union to play its trump card.

"To pull off a strike ... you really need to have public support," said Carol Zabin, chairwoman of the University of California, Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education. "And it's just a very, very tough moment to get that."


Affected ports

A list of major West Coast ports affected by negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association. The contract, which covers 10,500 workers, expired July 1.

Aberdeen, Wash.
Anacortes, Wash.
Astoria, Ore.
Bellingham, Wash.
Benicia, Calif.
Crockett, Calif.
Eureka, Calif.
Everett, Wash.
Kalama, Wash.
Long Beach, Calif.
Longview, Wash.
Los Angeles
Newport, Ore.
North Bend, Ore.
Oakland, Calif.
Olympia, Wash.
Port Angeles, Wash.
Port Gamble, Wash.
Port Hueneme, Calif.
Redwood City, Calif.
Richmond, Calif.
San Diego
San Francisco
Stockton, Calif.
Tacoma, Wash.
Vancouver, Wash.
West Sacramento, Calif.

Source: Pacific Maritime Association; International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

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