Dockworkers open caucus with questions about proposed contract
SAN FRANCISCO — The bitter contract dispute that closed West Coast ports for 10 days this fall isn’t over yet.
Members of the dockworkers’ union still must approve the tentative contract their representatives signed last month — and going into a union caucus that begins here Monday, signs are that’s far from automatic.
That’s because in the fiercely democratic International Longshore and Warehouse Union, such gatherings are 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 will convene here to entertain their negotiating committee’s explanation of the contract before they spend the week pelting them with questions. On Friday, delegates will recommend that the union’s 10,500 members either reject or approve the contract. And in January, union officials say, the rank and file will cast their ballots.
The contract arrives heavy with 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 with a rare use of the Taft-Hartley Act.
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 already 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 salaries hovering around $100,000 and unusually generous retirement plans. The other part was language on technology that is vague enough to give both 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, health care 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. We gotta know where we’re going.”
Heyman said he thought it was important for the rank and file to review the details of the deal, but that those who already had weren’t impressed.
“I think the concerns that the rank-and-file members have are pretty pervasive on the West Coast,” Heyman said. “From what I’m hearing from other ports, when members have a chance to read what the tentative agreement is, they’re expressing extreme dismay over parts of it.”
At the Portland union hall, the tentative deal signed Nov. 23 went on display this week.
“You become lawyers on the waterfront,” joked Jerry Cressa, a crane driver in Portland who has been a longshoreman since 1964. “It’s one of the most complicated contracts I’ve seen in 40 years. Especially the technology part.”
Cressa said that, if the ballot were today, he’d vote no.
In Seattle, one 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.”
Union members from the massive Los Angeles/Long Beach port complex will wield about half the caucus votes. Ramon Ponce de Leon, Jr., president of the largest Southern California local, declined comment.
Early next year, the rank and file is expected to vote.
If 60 percent of union members approve the contract, it passes outright. If between 50 and 60 percent vote yes, it still passes — unless enough union members voted no according to a formula that protects, among other groupings, smaller ports.
In 1996, for example, 59 percent of union members approved the contract, but one of the protected groups turned it down. Thus, in the first round, the contract failed. After union leaders lobbied the rank and file, in a subsequent vote the contract passed with 62 percent.
A spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Union, which sat across the table from the union and 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.”
On the Net:
Maritime Association: http://www.pmanet.org