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Crucial Moment for the Port

Contract negotiations between shipping companies and the West Coast longshore union are drawing to a close, and the two sides appear to be making solid progress. Modernization and a boost for flagging port productivity are the focus of the talks and, with jobs on the line, the experience has proved bruising at times. A harbor strike could shake the entire economy of Southern California and particularly its 400,000 jobs in maritime trade. The two sides must make a deal by Thursday to avoid a walkout.

Not since 1961, when management and labor concluded the Mechanization and Modernization Agreement, has the introduction of new technologies played such an important part in waterfront negotiations. New technology for the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, which handle more than half of containerized cargo on the West Coast, requires the immediate introduction of a computer system aimed at reducing the time that ships spend in port.

Although the wages of dockworkers have been going up, reaching to the top levels of American unionists, productivity has been declining. According to the Pacific Maritime Assn., a group of 90 West Coast terminal operators, steamship lines and stevedoring companies, productivity over the last four years has dropped nearly 7%. That’s why new technologies and increased worker output are at the center of industry concern.

The 14,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, who earn $60,000 a year on average--some make $150,000 or more--say wages are not at issue. Rather, with the new technologies and the trend to warehouse cargo away from the ports, to sites where dockers compete with other unions, the key demand is job security.

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Neither side should lose sight of what maritime trade means to the overall economy, especially in a region where six out of 10 containers shipped to the West Coast end up. The dominance of the Long Beach and Los Angeles ports might well be threatened if they were struck by the kind of work stoppages and slowdowns that dockers staged after signing their current agreement in 1996.

The Mexican port of Ensenada, for instance, has ambitious plans for expansion and is eager to lure cargoes to the burgeoning maquiladora factories along the Mexico-U.S. border. Ports in Canada and on the East Coast also are hungry for new business.

Increased productivity would mean a faster turnaround for ships, which is vitally important for the steamship companies. Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors dare not fail to give shippers the service they need.

This is the message for the West Coast longshore negotiations. Management and labor need to strike a bargain, now.

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