Shippers, dock workers extend contract during talks

By Justin Pritchard, The Associated Press
Wednesday July 03, 2002

Billions of dollars in trade
>are at stake; lockout would
cut flow of goods across nation


SAN FRANCISCO — Shipping companies and dock workers agreed that goods will continue to move through West Coast ports for now after deciding to extend their contract on a “day-to-day” basis, giving federal officials and businesses across the country a brief reprieve from fear of the economic impact of a strike or lockout. 

Both sides negotiated through a Monday contract expiration deadline, and both sides promised not to force an immediate labor disruption. 

Billions of dollars in trade are at stake, and a strike or lockout would cut off the flow of goods that enter the nation’s 29 major Pacific ports and move to store shelves across the nation. 

The union representing 10,500 longshoremen who work the docks has not voted to authorize a strike. The shippers’ association, meanwhile, has promised not to lock out the dock workers — unless they stage a work slowdown. 

“We have an enormous responsibility to negotiate an agreement without any work interruption on the waterfront,” said Joseph Miniace, president and chief executive officer of the Pacific Maritime Association. 

The contract expired at 5 p.m. Monday — 10 minutes before that deadline, the two sides reconvened at their San Francisco bargaining table for the first time since Saturday. 

Both sides concluded the evening by agreeing to extend the contract on a “day-to-day” basis and to resume talks Tuesday at 2 p.m. PDT, according to a statement from the association. 

A union spokesman did not immediately return calls seeking comment. 

During the last round of negotiations in 1999, the deadline came and went, longshoremen kept working, and two weeks later the two sides settled. 

The three-year contract between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the shippers’ association covers all America’s major Pacific ports, from San Diego to Seattle. Last year, longshoremen handled $260 billion in cargo, according to the association. 

With the association expecting that value to double as trade with Asia surges over the next decade, West Coast ports are a linchpin of the nation’s economic prosperity. A shutdown would send a shiver through the economy, especially since many holiday-time products are imported over the summer and ever-leaner U.S. firms have slimmed inventories to keep costs down. 

“Can you imagine what would happen to America if there were no stuff in the malls?” asked Stephen Cohen, a University of California, Berkeley professor of regional planning who studied the economic impact of a port closure for the shippers’ association. “They should stick these guys at Camp David or Guantanamo Bay and settle it.” 

Cohen cited numbers that a port shut down of five days would cost the economy about $4.7 billion, while a 20-day shut down would cost $48.6 billion. 

“Hopefully, they realize the national implications of the dispute,” said Lawrence Fineran, a vice president at the Washington-based National Association of Manufacturers, which has sent letters of concern to the White House and several cabinet departments. 

With so much at stake, the White House has said it’s watching, and federal lawmakers have petitioned both sides to keep the ports open. 

Even were one side to quit negotiations, under federal law President Bush can block a strike and impose an 80-day cooling-off period. The Labor Department, which has a representative monitoring the discussions, declined comment Monday. 

The union spent Monday preparing a counter proposal to shippers’ Saturday offer, a package that a union spokesman described as “an offer that was designed to be rejected.” 

“First they offered us nothing but cutbacks” in benefits and pensions, said union spokesman Steve Stallone. “Now they’re offering us peanuts. That’s how much it’s moved.” 

association spokesman said Monday night that 

Negotiations have stalled over benefits and how to bring new cargo-handling technology to the ports, according to both sides. 

Shippers say they need to automate the ports to compete more efficiently in the global economy. 

Union leaders say they’re not against modernization — as long as new technology doesn’t take the place of manpower. 

“Ever since computers were brought to the docks, they’ve tried to outsource our jobs,” said spokesman Steve Stallone. 

Shippers promise that modernization isn’t a code word for layoffs and promise that no union job will be lost. 

Union officials also say shippers are trying to cut their health benefits and gut the grievance process. Shippers say their offers keep the union’s health package the envy of the working class. 

Wages are also at issue. A longshoreman’s $80,000 average annual salary for full-time dock work rises to a $167,000 average for the most experienced foremen. 

West Coast docks saw strikes in 1934, 1936-37, 1948 and 1971.