A LOOK AHEAD * As a pact by union officials and shippers to hire more women dockworkers goes to a judge, fears of reverse discrimination create . . . Contention on the Waterfront

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Accused of failing to comply with a 15-year-old federal court order to hire more women, the powerful longshore workers union and a prominent shipping association have agreed to settle contempt of court charges by recruiting more female dockworkers in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The pending settlement, which is headed for approval early next year in federal court, involves a civil contempt action against the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Assn., which represents scores of shipping companies and operators of cargo terminals on the West Coast. Both are parties to a 1983 federal consent decree that settled a civil rights suit by establishing hiring goals for women.

If, as expected, the agreement is finalized by U.S. District Judge Robert M. Takasugi, hundreds of well-paying longshore positions--some with annual salaries approaching $90,000--will open up for women.

"This will bring closure to a very difficult and complicated case," said Michelle A. Reinglass, an Orange County attorney who filed the contempt case on behalf of a group of female dockworkers. "We had given up many times, thinking this agreement just wasn't going to happen."

The proposal, however, may add fuel to the heated debate over the legality of affirmative action plans, quotas and hiring goals that have been used to combat sex and racial discrimination across the nation.

In the harbor, hundreds of male longshore workers--many of whom fear the agreement will cause reverse discrimination--have already lodged formal objections to the settlement in federal court. More protests are expected in the weeks ahead.

"Hiring goals like this are out of style today," said Raymond P. Fitzpatrick Jr., an attorney whose lawsuit resulted in a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned quotas for blacks at the Birmingham Fire Department in Alabama. "If properly attacked, the agreement can be blown apart."

Whatever the outcome next year, the case reflects the changing nature of dock work as more women enter what was once a male-dominated industry that relied on backbreaking labor.

Over the last 20 years, mechanization, automation and the use of 40-foot shipping containers for the vast majority of goods have made longshore work increasingly attractive to women.

In 1980, there were about 3,500 unionized dockworkers in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Only seven were female. Currently, there are 700 to 800 women out of about 5,400 union members. Much of that gain has been largely due to litigation that began in 1980.

The dockworkers' union has even adopted gender-neutral language for its title. Today, it's simply the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. "Man" was officially dropped from longshoreman and warehouseman earlier this year.

The latest dispute with the union and maritime association began in March, when Reinglass brought the contempt action in federal court. She alleged that the organizations have never complied with hiring goals they agreed to 15 years ago in the settlement of a controversial sex discrimination case.

Without any finding of bias in the union registration process, the 1983 consent decree required the association and the union to recruit women at a certain rate until 20% of the union's members in the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were female.

20% Target Never Reached

Records in the contempt case suggest, however, that no more than 17% of the registered work force has ever been female since the so-called Golden Decree was signed. In 1996 and early 1997, the figure was as low as 13%, according to court documents.

Reinglass claimed the union and maritime association failed to recruit enough women during registrations and did not count several categories of longshore workers when determining compliance with the decree.

As a result, Reinglass estimates that union registrations were short 166 women from 1983 to 1992. From 1993 to date, she says, 35 men have been registered and only four women--an indication of another potential shortfall in hiring.

"The goals have never been reached," said Marc Coleman, an attorney for longshore Local 13 based in Wilmington. "We deny any liability, but we believe the goals should be in place. They are an effective way of integrating a work force."

To settle the contempt action, the maritime association and longshore union have agreed to grant union status over the next 27 months to 250 casual longshore workers who are female.

In the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, there are about 3,000 casual or nonunion longshore workers. They receive the lowest wages and often the least desirable assignments. Entry into the union often comes after many years working the docks as a casual.

In addition to the initial hiring, the union and association will increase the overall registration level from 20% women to 25%.

To help meet the revised goal, the union and association have offered to extend the life of the Golden Decree another six years. The original agreement expired in May.

The women involved in the case declined to comment on the agreement. Reinglass said her clients have accepted the proposed settlement and dropped their demands for seniority and millions of dollars in financial damages.

Their case, however, is not over. Hearings to determine if the agreement is fair to dockworkers are scheduled for Jan. 14. After listening to arguments for and against the settlement, Takasugi will decide whether to approve the deal.

The proposal is encountering opposition from hundreds of dockworkers, both male and female. Some of them have hired their own attorneys to challenge the agreement.

Almost 400 male longshore workers claim that hiring goals for women are now obsolete under federal law and that the goals will result in reverse discrimination.

The males, mostly casual dockworkers, are concerned that female casuals with less experience than they have will be registered into the union ahead of them.

"The quotas are exorbitant and the Supreme Court has condemned them because they automatically exclude qualified applicants from consideration," said Carmen A. Trutanich, a San Pedro attorney who is challenging the settlement.

No Finding of Discrimination

Arguing against extending the Golden Decree, Trutanich noted that there has never been a finding of discrimination in the union registration process.

Attorneys for the union and maritime association contend that the goals are constitutional because they are neither rigid quotas nor permanent.

"You don't need a court finding of discrimination to have a settlement like this," said An T. Le, an attorney for the longshore union. "Parties have the power to work together to set up a balanced work force. This is what we have done."

In another challenge, a group of female longshore workers contends that the settlement does not go far enough. They say it fails to address the enormous wage losses they have suffered because the union and association have been slow to convey union status on female casuals in their attempt to comply with the Golden Decree.

Their attorney, Walter Cochran-Bond, estimates that more than 700 women have lost $50 million to $100 million in pay--an amount that will not be recovered by the settlement. He has accused Reinglass of incompetence for not adequately pursuing the financial losses.

Reinglass dismissed Cochran-Bond's allegations, saying he has already tried and failed to get her disqualified as counsel in the case. She added that his efforts to intervene as a plaintiff in the lawsuit also have been denied by the court.

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