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With Few Port Jobs at Issue, Economic Stakes are Vast

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With Few Port Jobs at Issue, Economic Stakes Are Vast


OAKLAND, Calif., Oct. 1 — In the tense standoff that has shut 29 West Coast ports and threatens to undermine the nation's economy, employers and union officials agree that the heart of the dispute involves just a few hundred jobs.

These are not the tough, blue-collar dock jobs depicted in the Marlon Brando film "On the Waterfront," but rather clerical jobs usually paying nearly $120,000 a year. They are held by longshoremen who keep track of cargo movements.

The union's big fear is that when management introduces new technologies to speed cargo handling, these highly prized jobs will be contracted out to companies using nonunion labor.

Many businesses find this confrontation especially maddening because the billions, even tens of billions of dollars, in damage that the port shutdown can do to the nation's economy is so much greater than the amount of money separating the two sides. By some estimates, it would cost the employers about $20 million a year if the few hundred disputed jobs ended up union rather than nonunion.

"It's pretty silly," said Robin Lanier, executive director of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, a group that includes Wal-Mart, Target, Toyota, Panasonic and dozens of other businesses that rely on the ports. "If they're just disputing 200, 300 jobs, to shut the whole economy down over that sounds extreme."

On Sunday night, the Pacific Maritime Association, a group of terminal operators and shipping lines, announced that it was closing ports from San Diego to Seattle and locking out 10,500 longshoremen. The employers said they were acting defensively, in response to a job slowdown that was paralyzing the ports, but union officials said the longshoremen were merely working more cautiously than usual because of safety concerns resulting from the deaths of five longshoremen this year.

Alarmed that the shutdown would hurt the nation's stores, the National Retail Federation asked President Bush to move to reopen the ports immediately. He is empowered to order an 80-day cooling-off period to reopen the ports, but such a Taft-Hartley injunction has not been invoked in a quarter-century.

Ms. Lanier said her group might also ask the president to reopen the ports if there was no progress soon in contract talks.

No progress was made today in negotiations because union officials walked out of a meeting in Oakland with Peter Hurtgen, director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, when they discovered that management negotiators had two armed guards with them at the talks.

"This is an outrageous action," said James Spinosa, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. "This is total irresponsibility on their part. Thug tactics will not work with us."

But officials with the Pacific Maritime Association insisted at a news conference that they were not trying to intimidate the union leaders. "We had the security detail because obviously we thought it was necessary," said Tom Edwards, Northern California director of the maritime association. "It was a precautionary measure. That's all it was."

As a result of the flare-up over the security guards, the two sides said talks scheduled for Wednesday might be canceled. The union said it would refuse to negotiate with management's designated negotiating committee, insisting instead that it would talk only with the maritime association's executive committee. The maritime association insisted that only its negotiating committee would take part in the talks.

With his administration monitoring the stalemate, Mr. Bush urged the two sides today to use a federal mediator to resolve their dispute. "It's a problem, something that we're just going to have to get these parties to work through and get back to work, open these ports up," Mr. Bush said. "It's important to our economy to do so."

Over the next few days, pressures on the president to order a cooling-off period will undoubtedly grow. But Mr. Bush could face a quandary because unions whose support he and Congressional Republicans have vigorously sought oppose ordering a cooling-off period.

Several economic studies estimate that if the shutdown lasts five days, it will cost just under $5 billion, and if it lasts 10 days, the cost will soar to nearly $20 billion.

The employers say the dispute is about the union's resistance to using new technologies. But the longshoremen insist they will accept new technologies but only if the remaining cargo-tracking jobs remain union.

Joseph Miniace, the maritime association president, said the union should not worry about jurisdiction because management had pledged that no workers would be laid off once new technologies were introduced. He estimated that new technologies would eliminate 400 of the current 1,600 marine clerks' positions, but he tried to reassure the union by pledging to find other jobs for those workers.

Mr. Edwards, the maritime association official, said, "We have guaranteed across the table in writing that we have guaranteed every longshoreman and every marine clerk a job, and there is no intent of cutting or laying people off."

Mr. Spinosa said the union's big fear was that many of the cargo-tracking jobs that result from the use of new technology would be contracted out to companies that use nonunion workers. The union worries that unless it fights over jurisdiction now, then a few decades from now most waterfront jobs will be nonunion, and his union will be a shadow of its muscular self. "We endorse technology, but what we don't endorse is to have our work go elsewhere," Mr. Spinosa said. "Lifetime jobs without a commitment to the future is not an area we want to find ourselves. We're looking for jobs that have longevity tied to them."

David Olson, an expert on port operations at the University of Washington, said the feud over jurisdiction was not just about money. "To the longshoremen, jurisdictional issues are near sacred," he said. "These are things they have fought over since the 1930's, and the concept of a nonunion clerk violates principles on which the organization was built."

Management is hoping to introduce new technologies like optical scanners to speed the entry of trucks carrying cargo and global positioning satellites to follow the path of cargo. The employers say these new technologies are vital to lowering their costs and remaining competitive with ports elsewhere.

Professor Olson said management feared that if all these new technology-related jobs were union, then unionized workers could repeatedly devise ways to slow the introduction of additional technologies. "This dispute is not just about money, it's also about control," he said.

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this strike sucks! ::mad: :mad:

dont be surprised if you dont see new merchanise on the floors for the next couple of weeks

right now retailers are trying to get in their holiday merchandise and this strikes has hundreds of millions of goods sitting on the docks or sitting on boats on the west coast. ! retail in general is hurting very badly right now and this strike is not helping the cuase at all.



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