If you look real hard through the settling dust and wafting smoke of the last contract vote, you can see something happening to the West Coast longshore union:

A split.It isn't new. The division in the union started appearing years ago. And it isn't surprising. Changes in the shipping industry naturally dictate some changes in the labor force that makes it function. But the split is becoming more apparent and more severe. Carried through to its conclusion, it means two unions in the future of West Coast ports.

That would be a mighty change. With a few isolated exceptions, one union, the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union, has controlled longshore work at West Coast ports since the mid-1930s. Under the leadership of its founder, Harry Bridges, and his successor, Jimmy Herman, the union flourished and extended its reach. But when Mr. Herman retired from the top spot in 1991, simmering differences within the union began to boil. It has resulted in two acrimonious union elections and a recent contract negotiation that almost ended up on the rocks.

What it comes down to is friction between breakbulk and container operations. Breakbulk work is labor-intensive, moving cargo piece by piece in slings or pallets. It's still a standard part of port work, especially in the logging ports of the Pacific Northwest. But it is being supplanted by containerization, moving cargo in standardized boxes. These operations, besides grabbing more and more traffic every year, have given rise to large containerports designed to move huge volumes of cargo between ships and railroads and trucks.

The West Coast is home to five of these mega-containerport operations. The two largest are based in Southern California. And that was where David Arian had his power base in a successful contest against Randy Vekich for Jimmy Herman's throne. Mr. Vekich had support from the Pacific Northwest, giving the election a north-south flavor, even though Seattle and Tacoma account for a good chunk of container traffic.

The same sort of flavor came through in the last election, when Brian McWilliams ousted Mr. Arian with the help of Pacific Northwest votes. Mr. McWilliams also had some support from around the Northern California area, a mixture of Oakland container traffic and smaller bulk and breakbulk operations.

The same container vs. breakbulk, south vs. north type of split may appear again next year at election time. The main Southern California local was a vocal critic of the new longshore agreement negotiated under Mr. McWilliams. No doubt part of the opposition was a remnant of the Arian campaign. But also the new contract changes some work rules which, while reinforcing the union's control over dispatching, raised the ire of some Southern California members. The resentment will fester.

And Oakland area longshoremen, who lost travel pay bonuses, are likely to have some resentment too. Whether that means throwing their support behind a Southern California candidate or pushing for a candidate of their own remains to be seen.

Whoever the candidates are, it is apparent the union is becoming fractured. That's bad for members and the businesses that employ them. Unlike the East and Gulf coasts, where breakbulk issues and local work rules are negotiated port by port under an overall master agreement, the West Coast has a system where a dispute over local work rules in one port can bring the whole contract ratification process to a halt.

Then, for example, stevedores and longshoremen in the Pacific Northwest can be held hostage for issues in Southern California, or booming container operations can be stalled because of disputes at tiny breakbulk ports, and so on.

It's a situation that, metaphorically speaking, allows the tail to wag the dog. While the longshore union gets strength from its ability to shut down an entire coast, the recent tussle over the latest contract and the acrimony in the last two elections shows that the union is having difficulty balancing the interests of all its members.

Perhaps it's time for the ILWU to think about ways of redefining its organization, so that all elements of the longshore group - north-south, breakbulk-container - can have input without jeopardizing everyone's fair deal.

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