Dock talks advance on technology issue
By Justin Pritchard
SAN FRANCISCO Days after their contract talks with dockworkers nearly deteriorated into a ports shutdown, negotiators for shipping lines reported a breakthrough yesterday on the thorny issue of how to modernize the West Coast waterfront.
A union spokesman downplayed any progress, saying there wasn't much to celebrate until both sides sign a comprehensive technology agreement.
At issue is how to use computers to streamline the flow of more than $300 billion worth of cargo that crosses the docks each year at 29 major Pacific ports. That volume is projected to double by decade's end and already indirectly supports about 4 million jobs and more than 7 percent of the gross domestic product.
It's a major chunk of a new contract that the Pacific Maritime Association and International Longshore and Warehouse Union spent the summer haggling over in often tumultuous talks.
Late yesterday, the association said a subcommittee representing each side had agreed to a new procedure for introducing new technology.
Under the principles of the agreement, the association said, representatives from both sides would discuss how to phase in improvements. If they could not agree, the issue would move along a set timetable to an independent arbitrator.
"We are confident that the two sides have agreed in principle to a framework that creates the opportunity to implement technology on the waterfront," Joseph Miniace, the president of the Pacific Maritime Association, said in a written statement. "This could be the critical milestone to move these negotiations to a conclusion."
Or maybe not, said union spokesman Michael Perri.
At least two critical issues remain unresolved whether all jobs created by new technology will be union held and whether employers should guarantee minimum staffing levels.
Yesterday's principles on implementing new technology may well end up part of final language on technology, Perri said. He stressed, however, that could fall apart if the two sides can't agree on the other important issues.
"It's not an agreement until it's a signed agreement," Perri said, calling the association's take "creative mythology."
The union has said the 87 companies the association represents have conflicting agendas, a division which has stymied progress.
The contract expired July 1 and longshoremen have been working without any agreement since Sept. 1, when talks temporarily broke down and the union stopped signing 24-hour extensions.
A union spokesman said its full negotiating team would meet this morning to discuss the status of talks. No date has been set for both sides to meet again, though an association spokesman said early next week would be likely.