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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, December 10, 2002

Dockworkers open caucus to discuss tentative contract

By Justin Pritchard
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO — A dockworkers' union caucus opened yesterday, giving members the chance to mull over a tentative contract while the bitter dispute that closed West Coast ports for 10 days this fall was fresh in their minds.

The dockworkers' union representatives approved the contract last month, but rank-and-file approval is far from automatic.

That's because in the fiercely democratic International Longshore and Warehouse Union, such gatherings are traditionally raucous, ranging debates. What's more, this year's landmark contract is a tinderbox because it would usher in new cargo-tracking technology that costs about 400 union jobs in the short term.

"I would be alarmed if there weren't people voicing objections. Then I'd be concerned," union spokesman Steve Stallone said. "The only way for this to pass and work is that the members own it."

About 80 delegates from Seattle to San Diego convened here to entertain their negotiating committee's explanation of the contract before they pelt them with questions. On Friday, delegates will recommend that the union's 10,500 members either reject or approve the contract. The rank and file will cast their ballots in January.

The contract comes with heavy baggage.

It took a federal mediator to coax the deal from a conflict that included the lockout, which President Bush ended in October by ordering both sides back to work.

Already, the ports handle $300 billion worth of cargo each year, a volume that's expected to swell with Pacific Rim trade. Shipping companies argued the ports are inefficient and demanded that the negotiations yield a plan to modernize the 29 major Pacific ports with new computer technology.

One part of the answer was a package that includes average dockworker sal-aries hovering around $100,000 — instead of the current $80,000 — and unusually generous retirement plans. The other part was language on technology that is vague enough to give the union and shipping companies a plausible victory.

Those are precisely the gray areas that worry Jack Heyman, a caucus member from San Francisco who opposes the contract.

He has no quarrel with the pensions, healthcare and other benefits.

Instead, Heyman said, of particular concern was its length — six years, double the norm — and whether the union gets jurisdiction over jobs created by new technologies.

"This is a rapidly changing industry," Heyman said. "We don't know where this is leading, so to have a contract of six years is like heading a ship through narrow straits without navigational charts."

In Seattle, a local union chapter leader said he expected a raucous caucus, but that ultimately the contract would pass.

"There's going to be hot and heavy debate and there's issues," said local Vice President Del Bates. "There's always that in our ranks. And we've got a contract so far."

A spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Union, which represents shipping lines and port terminal operators, didn't want to comment on the caucus.

"It seemed clear during the negotiations that this was an excellent package for the union to take to its membership," spokesman Steve Sugerman said. "The agreement came at the conclusion of a six-month process with tremendous give and take from both sides."

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