THE WEST COAST TALKS

Now is when attention in the ocean logistics industry begins turning inexorably to the West Coast waterfront.

In less than a month, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union begins formally negotiating a new three-year collective bargaining agreement with employers, who are represented by the Pacific Maritime Association. The current contract expires July 1.Remembering well the widespread work slowdowns and resulting cargo delays that accompanied and followed the 1996 talks, most steamship lines have prepared contingency plans to reroute cargo away from West Coast ports.

Whether they will be forced to activate those plans - which would involve shifting cargo to vessels that serve the Asia-U.S. trade through the Panama Canal or the slower westbound route through the Suez Canal and across the Atlantic - is of course unknown at this early stage. But does the potential for disruption exist this year?

Absolutely.

The past three years have not been happy ones in the up-and-down PMA-ILWU relationship. Falling Pacific freight rates have have put ocean carriers in a foul mood. Carriers operate many of the largest marine terminals on the West Coast and are the dominant voice within the PMA.

When ILWU workers walked off the job, as the PMA said they did on 150 separate occasions since the '96 contract was signed, the employer group was no longer content simply to call in an arbitrator. Instead, it filed lawsuits citing breach of contract, something it had rarely if ever done before.

Terminal operators, meanwhile, have watched with growing dismay as productivity, or weighted tons per man-hour, began to decline after several years of improvement. The union disputes the PMA's calculation.

Part of the productivity decline the PMA sees can be blamed on the so-called side deals that were at the heart of the 1996 disruptions. Terminal operators, desperate for skilled dockworkers to operate cranes and other equipment to keep ships on schedule, offered off-contract bonuses amounting to thousands of dollars to individual dockworkers who agreed to show up regularly.

The 1996 contract supposedly eliminated side deals. The slowdowns surrounding those talks, in fact, were largely the result of Southern California dockworkers protesting such limits on their hefty incomes.

In truth, side deals never really disappeared. Instead of outright bonuses, many dockworkers arranged to be paid for work not performed: 10 hours of pay for eight worked, five days of pay for three days of work, or other such deals. During ''off'' hours, dockworkers simply find another assignment, significantly boosting their annual income.

The ILWU has itself experienced a particularly turbulent couple of years. Brian McWilliams, the union's moderate president, who led the drive to eliminate side deals as a threat to union solidarity, has spent most of the past few years fending off attempts by Southern California locals to remove him from office.

His opponents, led by ILWU Vice President James Spinosa, a Southern California hard-liner, did succeed in having him removed as lead negotiator in the upcoming contract talks, a role traditionally held by the president.

Mr. Spinosa will lead the union's negotiating team instead. Some carriers see that as positive, because at least he, unlike Mr. McWilliams, who comes from the Bay Area, would appear to better represent the cantankerous Southern California faction.

This is critical: Employers want to be able to negotiate with someone who genuinely represents the rank-and-file, even if that person is a hard-liner.

Still, whether the union's leadership can ever effectively unite the locals is an open question. Rank-and-file dockworkers don't always buy into the fiery ''workers of the world unite'' rhetoric coming out of the San Francisco headquarters. It's hard to believe that every guy or gal on the docks wants to protest the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is on death row for the murder of a Philadelphia policeman.

To participate in a national rally for Abu-Jamal, the ILWU moved the one shift it takes off each month to conduct union business from the quiet Thursday night shift to this Saturday - the busiest shift of the week in bustling Southern California.

The issues likely to dominate the talks, while different from those of previous years, do not appear to make this negotiation fundamentally different. The union, whose Class-A members earned an average of just under $100,000 last year, is less concerned about salary than jurisdiction and benefits. It has not released its formal demands.

The PMA wants a reliable work force - in other words, no more 150 walkouts - and hopes to engage the union in a real discussion about extending the use of technology on the docks. Whether the talks will ever get to that point is unclear. Some believed the relationship had reached its lowest point in decades last year in the midst of the walkouts, lawsuits and public tit-for-tat.

Things have settled down since then; the most contentious of the PMA lawsuits has been dropped, for example. Will that be enough to clear the air such that real business can take place? Stay tuned.

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