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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 5:49 p.m., Thursday, September 26, 2002

West Coast port talks deteriorate

By Justin Pritchard
Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO West Coast docks sped toward renewed labor unrest today as shipping lines accused longshoremen of staging work slowdowns after their union expressed frustration over contract talks by urging members to work "in strict accordance" with safety regulations.

Longshoremen began staging slowdowns this afternoon in Oakland, as well as Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., according to Pacific Maritime Association, which represents shipping lines and terminal operators.

A spokesman for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 10,500 workers at all 29 major Pacific ports, said he didn't know anything about slowdowns.

He did say, however, that union leaders spent the day ensuring local chapters from San Diego to Seattle were aware a resolution negotiators issued to "work safely in strict accordance with all provisions of the Pacific Coast Marine Safety Code and all federal and state health and safety regulations."

The two sides have been bargaining over a new contract for months but talks have steadily deteriorated.

Today's events echo the brinksmanship of last week, when shipping lines threatened to lock out longshoremen they charged with an initial round of slowdowns. That dispute was resolved without any lockout.

"Based on the union's resolution," said association President Joseph Miniace, "it appears that the ILWU intends to cause problems on the docks."

The association will monitor work rates overnight and decide tomorrow whether to warn workers as it did last week or move directly to a lockout, according to spokesman Tom Edwards.

Any disruption would deal an immediate blow to the economy. Hawai'i would be particularly hard hit because of its heavy dependence on shipped goods.

Any disruption could also stanch the flow of products from Asia just as importers are rushing to distribute goods for the holiday season.

That glut of containers has forced longshoremen and clerks to push the limits of safety, according to the union but that will change under the new directive.

The two sides were scheduled to return to the table tomorrow morning for what should be a feisty session. The union said today it won't discuss how to implement new technology, an issue shipping lines have stressed they must resolve before signing a new contract.

"The PMA has exhausted the technology discussion," union President James Spinosa said in a written release. "We worked with them to try and give them everything they wanted and they gave nothing in return. Now we have to turn to the issues important to our members including safety, pensions, and wages."

Miniace said he's willing to discuss other issues, but reiterated the association's demand that computers be phased in to streamline the movement of more than $300 billion worth of cargo that flows across West Coast docks each year.

"Let me be clear: technology is not off the table," Miniace said. "We had comprehensive and productive talks, and it is extremely disappointing that the union is reacting by threatening work actions and dismissing the topic altogether."

The union says it doesn't oppose new technology, but wants guarantees that positions created by technological advances are union covered.

The association says a growth in trade will translate into more union jobs over time, but the union shouldn't dictate that it gets every new job created by new technology.