SAN FRANCISCO — West Coast longshoremen and shipping companies reach an important — albeit tentative — agreement Friday on the use of technology, the major sticking point in their bitter contract talks.
Both sides hailed the deal on how to introduce new cargo tracking systems to the waterfront as the first tangible progress since negotiations resumed after last month’s lockout of dockworkers closed down shuttered major Pacific ports for 10 days.
The dockworker’s union and the association representing shipping lines were compelled to restart talks after a federal judge granted President Bush’s request for an 80-day “cooling-off” period that reopened the ports.
“The parties have worked long and hard,” federal mediator Peter Hurtgen said in a written statement Friday.
The deal concerned “the key issues of new technology and retention of union’s jurisdiction for marine clerk work,” the statement said.
Hurtgen would not disclose details of the agreement, which he said was reached at 4 a.m. PST Friday after all-night talks.
Still, it was clear that the deal entailed compromise on both sides.
The 10,500-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union had said it would agree to cuts in the number of marine clerks, whose jobs will be obsolete with a freer flow of electronic information, only if the Pacific Maritime Association agreed that new jobs created by the technology be under the union’s jurisdiction.
“We had our bottom line on jurisdiction on what we could do, what we could accept, and they met our bottom line,” union spokesman Steve Stallone said. “So we consider this a real victory and the first real progress we’ve had in these negotiations.”
Like Hurtgen, Stallone emphasized that the deal on technology isn’t the only issue separating the two sides — and if talks break up over issues such as pensions and arbitration of disputes, the technology deal could be moot.
Shipping lines and terminal operators will save hundreds of millions of dollars through the technology, “and we want a piece of that action,” primarily in the form of increased pensions, Stallone said.
A Pacific Maritime Association spokesman also said the deal could prove to be an important breakthrough, but had no further comment, citing Hurtgen’s request for a media blackout on the negotiations.
The tentative agreement comes as the two sides have been sparring over who’s to blame for slow progress in clearing a massive backlog of cargo off the docks since the lockout ended Oct. 9.
The association complained to the Justice Department that dockworkers have intentionally slowed work, cutting productivity by 30 percent in some cases. The union countered that mismanagement by shipping lines and terminal operators has led to dangerous congestion and disarray.
The nation’s 29 West Coast ports handle more than $300 billion in trade each year. Some economists estimated that the U.S. economy lost $1 billion each day as cargo piled up at the docks and ships waited at anchor offshore. Some factories had to shut down for lack of supplies.