- The Washington Times - Monday, September 16, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) New information technology could increase the productivity of West Coast ports and reduce bottlenecks of billions of dollars of goods from Asia, but dockworkers worry the increased efficiency will cost them jobs.
The issue is a major sticking point in contract talks between longshoremen from 29 major Pacific ports and the shipping lines that employ them.
A breakdown in talks could deplete the shelves of stores across the nation.
As Pacific Rim trade boomed during the 1990s, ports from San Diego to Seattle have seen large increases in cargo volume.
That has been good news for business and U.S. consumers, but the success could crumple under its own weight if the ports aren't modernized so cargo containers can move more quickly onto railways and highways, says the Pacific Maritime Association.
It represents dozens of shipping lines that bring goods to and from the ports.
For months, the association has been bargaining about a new contract with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents 10,500 West Coast dockworkers.
The union says it recognizes the importance of efficiency but will accept the new technology on its own terms.
"This is not just like bargaining over wages and fringe benefits that are fairly precise and quantifiable," said David J. Olson, a University of Washington political science professor tracking the talks.
"The union is not just going to accept any technology introduction without knowing the impact on its workers."
The two sides exchanged technology proposals this week and resumed talks yesterday.
The question of how to modernize the waterfront persists from the last rancorous contract negotiations in 1999, when both sides agreed to defer the issue to a joint committee. But that committee never met.
The changes they are now discussing wouldn't transform the United States' major Pacific ports into the super-automated dockyards seen in Hong Kong, Singapore or Rotterdam, Holland.
Instead, the ports would see a makeover that allows information to flow more freely.
Among the changes:
Shipping lines could use electronic records generated in Asian ports that detail contents of each container. Longshore clerks now retype that information. Shipping lines also could electronically organize how containers are stacked in dockyards.
Trucks coming to the shipping terminals could use an electronic card to show what they are picking up; at present, truckers complete that transaction with the aid of papers and a clerk. The computer would then help the truckers navigate the maze of containers on the sprawling yards for a faster turnaround.
"We're not moving things through our system in an efficient manner at all," said Joseph Miniace, president of the maritime association. "If we don't do it, within a few years our terminals are going to be absolutely gridlocked."
But dockworkers remain skeptical.
All the association really wants is to cut union jobs by refusing to guarantee that positions created by technological advances are covered by the union, according to union spokesman Steve Stallone.
"As soon as the clerks who now have their jobs retire, the jobs go to nonunion people," Mr. Stallone said. "If they can't bust the union outright, their plan is to have the union wither away."
Mr. Miniace said the number of union clerk positions would shrink from 1,200 to 800 during the next four years, but increased productivity would generate that many union jobs elsewhere.
And, he said, the union would gain positions as cargo volume at West Coast docks doubles in the next seven years from its annual level of about $300 billion.
Mr. Miniace said he thinks the sides aren't that far apart and that their differences could be bridged with three days of hard bargaining.
"We're talking about it, and that is a very big step forward," he said. "Where we go with these talks remains to be seen."
Mr. Stallone agreed.
"It's hard to say if we're close on anything," he said.
"Our proposal is to allow all the technology that they've been talking about this free flow of information in exchange for whatever jobs are created by the new technology. They have refused to agree to that," Mr. Stallone said.

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