Monday, November 25, 2002

Tentative agreement in West Coast port dispute

Dockworkers, shipping companies draw up contract

By Justin Pritchard
The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO - West Coast dockworkers and shipping companies reached tentative agreement on a contract that could end the drawn-out labor dispute that shut down the coast's major ports for 10 days and prompted the president to intervene.

The six-year contract would provide wage and benefit improvements for union members, plus technology and dispute-resolution improvements that the companies needed, said Peter Hurtgen, head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

He praised both sides, saying lead negotiators "demonstrated statesmenlike leadership, which made this agreement possible."

The agreement, reached late Saturday, still must be ratified by a majority of the 10,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. A caucus of about 100 union members will meet Dec. 7 to vote on the contract, and the entire rank-and-file will probably vote on it in early January, according to union president Jim Spinosa.

The major sticking points in the negotiations had centered on the desire by the Pacific Maritime Association, the industry group, for computerized cargo tracking systems that will make dockside work more efficient, but also cost jobs. The union, in return, wanted increased compensation and pension benefits.

"With this contract we are ushering in a new era of modernization," Joseph Miniace, president of the PMA, said Sunday.

"Workers can harness technology and make it work for them," said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, who joined the negotiations. "They can bridle it, saddle it and ride it to job, pension and economic security."

In Tacoma, Wash., local union Vice President Dick Marzano said workers were glad to have an agreement before the Dec. 27 end to a Taft-Hartley cooling-off period that was imposed by President Bush.

"It's a lot better to have an agreement in hand through the collective bargaining process so both sides can feel they've accomplished something," he said.

The dockworkers' previous contract expired in July.

Union member Bernard Bowden, 45, of Antioch, said he felt "relief and a lot of apprehension" about the tentative agreement.

"Six years? You know how things change," said Mr. Bowden, who has worked at Oakland's port since 1983. "It's too long to have a contract."

The shippers' association had locked out dockworkers at the 29 major Pacific ports for 10 days, leading Mr. Bush to invoke the Taft-Hartley law to open the docks Oct. 9 to avoid an economic crisis. The ports handle more than $300 billion in trade each year.

The lockout began after the companies accused the union of an illegal work slowdown to gain leverage in the contract negotiations.

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 shut down for lack of supplies.

Mr. Bush was the first president in 24 years to invoke the emergency provision of the Taft-Hartley Act in an attempt to halt a labor dispute. He also was the first president in history to use the act to stop a lockout, not a strike.

Taft-Hartley has been invoked 11 times in port disputes in the past, of which only nine were successfully resolved.

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Tentative agreement in West Coast port dispute