Despite Pause, West Coast Dock Dispute Far From Over

After being forced back to work temporarily by a federal judge, the 10,500-member International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU) obstinately refuses to resolve a contract dispute that so far has cost the U.S. economy nearly $10 billion.

The impact of the labor shutdown on West Coast ports has reverberated economy-wide, affecting everything from retail goods to military supplies. The value of trade through West Coast ports last year was $300 billion, roughly equivalent to 7% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. Another shutdown could plunge the economy back into recession.

After waiting weeks to intervene out of fear of alienating unions just before the midterm elections, President Bush, at the pleading of the business community, invoked the Taft-Hartley Act. As required by the act, Bush first determined that the labor dispute threatened "national health and safety," and then the Justice Department persuaded a federal judge in San Francisco to grant an injunction, which ended the "work stoppage."

The injunction initiated Taft-Hartley’s so-called 80-day "cooling off period." As of now, the ports are functioning again, longshoremen have returned to their jobs, and negotiations, overseen by federal mediators, between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which controls and operates the ports, are ongoing. But once the 80-day period expires, Taft-Hartley provides no recourse to end the dispute.

The prospects for a resolution look dim, partly because Taft-Hartley, while providing some breathing room, does not provide a mechanism for reaching a final settlement of such disputes.

Big Benefits

But even more crucially, the ILWU insists that its inflexible demands be honored, refusing offers most union and non-union members would heartily accept.

The dispute is rooted in the PMA’s long-standing plans to modernize West Coast ports. The PMA controls and operates those ports, which are dotted along the Pacific Coast from Los Angeles to Seattle. For years, principally because of opposition from the ILWU, these ports, unlike ports around the world, have not been upgraded to meet the demands of global commerce.

The ILWU opposes modernization out of fear that union jobs will be replaced by new technology.

Such technology, according to the PMA, is badly needed, but hardly revolutionary. "In some cases, longshore workers still use chalk to identify and track cargo at a time in this Age of Technology when local grocery stores and video rental outlets use barcodes and scanners," said the PMA’s Tom Edwards.

"We have ILWU clerks re-typing information when that information can be reprocessed with the press of a button. We’re not talking hi-tech here," he said. "But we need this technology to meet new demands, and stay competitive."

Edwards said the ILWU’s opposition is baseless, since the PMA agreed not to sacrifice a single union job to technological development. "PMA has guaranteed job protection for every registered worker who may be impacted by technology," he said. "Not one member of the ILWU will lose his or her job because of this technology."

Another point of contention is how longshoremen should be compensated. Longshoremen are among the most highly paid union workers in the country. Currently, the average annual salary for a full-time longshore worker is $106, 833. Nonetheless, the ILWU insists the PMA boost those salaries by a whopping 57% over three years. Not surprisingly, the PMA has refused.

The PMA responded by offering a 17% increase, which would hike the average salaries for longshoremen and marine clerks to $114,500 and $137,500 respectively.

The ILWU, however, is stubbornly refusing to accept anything less than its final proposal. Union officials argue that they have compromised enough. In their view, they graciously abandoned their original bargaining position of a 70% increase over three years.

In trying to break the stalemate, the PMA threw in big benefit increases. The cost of ILWU benefits last year was $42,000 per worker. According to the Department of Labor statistics, full-time U.S. workers earn, on average, about $35,000 in benefits. The PMA’s offer would increase the ILWU benefit package to $59,000 annually.

Thus far, the ILWU has shown no sign of urgency to reach consensus. Contract talks began on May 13. During the following 10 weeks, the ILWU agreed to meet only 28 times for a total of 53.5 hours. Despite the PMA’s repeated requests to meet more frequently, and for longer periods, the ILWU refused, and even said it was unwilling to work weekends.