Passing the torch

Passing the torch

When Joseph Miniace took control of the Pacific Maritime Association after the 1996 contract negotiations with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, waterfront employers on the West Coast exercised minimal control over their work force.

An antiquated dispatch system allowed longshoremen to show up as much as an hour late each day. If workers objected to a terminal operator's actions, they slowed cargo operations. Spontaneous walkouts were common over everything from an employer's effort to eliminate an unnecessary job to the ILWU's opposition to the World Trade Organization.

Miniace took on the ILWU, issue by issue, beginning seven years of lawsuits and acrimony that peaked in a management lockout that produced a 10-day shutdown of West Coast ports in October 2002. The shutdown, though painful to companies, led to a six-year PMA-ILWU contract that will revolutionize work practices at the nation's largest ports.

When he resigned as PMA president on March 17, Miniace left West Coast waterfront employers with a template for introducing technology and increasing productivity. More than that, he instilled employers with a new attitude about their relationship with the powerful ILWU. "They understand their role as employers. They can manage their work force," Miniace said.

The legacy that Miniace leaves his successor, Jim McKenna, a 30-year industry veteran, is a clearly defined process in which waterfront employers will introduce technology and dismantle cumbersome work processes and manning requirements that stifle productivity.

Also of great importance, a grievance procedure and system of arbitration are in place to protect the union's jurisdiction without impeding progress. "Technology is a big deal," McKenna said. "There are ways to challenge it, but no way to stop it."

McKenna joined the PMA in July 2003 as chief operating officer. He worked for 30 years in the maritime industry in vessel operations, procurement, terminal operations and labor relations, mostly on the East Coast. McKenna spent much of his career at Sea-Land Service Inc. and its successor lines, CSX Lines and Horizon Lines.

The PMA hired McKenna to implement the new ILWU contract. He has been in charge of contract implementation since last summer.

Miniace's tenure as president of the PMA was a period of volatility and battles with the ILWU, but his process of changing work practices that had been in place since the historic Mechanization and Modernization Agreement of 1960 could not have been more methodical.

Miniace began by ending the maverick work stoppages that employers had assumed were a price of doing business. Although the West Coast had not experienced a coastwide strike since 1971, localized slowdowns and walkouts were common.

The ILWU has always been proud of its militant activism in support of human rights. Employer injustices against dockworkers in Liverpool, England or Australia generated ILWU boycotts of vessels and sympathy strikes on the West Coast.

At home, attempts by employers to discipline workers or alter outdated manning requirements were met by localized or coastwide rolling work stoppages that resulted in arbitration. The ILWU won some decisions. Employers won others, but it was not unusual for the union to simply ignore the decisions of arbitrators they did not agree with.

Miniace ended this free-for-all by taking the union to court and suing for damages with each unauthorized work stoppage. The ILWU charged that he was circumventing a 40-year-old grievance process and in the process alienating the work force.

Looking back, Miniace doesn't view his actions as hard-nosed or vindictive. "It was nothing personal against the union or any individual in the union," he said. Taking the union to court was a last resort to enforce the contract. "It was the only avenue left. It was strictly business," he said.

As the union lost its ability to call unauthorized work stoppages, it turned to what employers considered a more insidious type of job action - work slowdowns. The ILWU used them most effectively during the 1999 contract negotiations. That was the year that Miniace intended to introduce a technology contract, but the ILWU delayed discussion of technology until the previous contract expired.

Working without a contract in the summer of 1999, the union began a series of crippling slowdowns that were difficult to prove and impossible to stop. Employers caved in and agreed to establish a joint committee on technology and jurisdiction that met infrequently and accomplished nothing over the ensuing three years.

From the day the 1999 contract was signed, Miniace quietly began to prepare for the 2002 contract negotiations. He ordered a survey of the productivity of every terminal on the West Coast. The baseline information would provide the PMA with the evidence it needed in future slowdowns to prove that workers were performing far below standard.

Miniace made frequent trips to Washington, building relationships with the employer-friendly Bush administration and preparing agency officials for what he knew would be the West Coast's most contentious contract talks in decades. He established close ties with the West Coast Waterfront Coali-tion, a shipper group that included the largest importers in the Pacific trade.

The 2002 negotiations proceeded as expected, dragging on throughout the summer with no progress on technology but a tentative commitment by employers to increase ILWU pension benefits by 60 percent. On Labor Day weekend, the union stormed out of the talks, and sporadic work slowdowns ensued. A federally appointed mediator was unable to foster a contract agreement.

By the end of September, cargo was moving through ports so slowly that Miniace termed the ILWU's actions a "strike with pay." Employers locked out the union for 10 days, reopening the ports only after the Bush administration secured a back-to-work injunction under the Taft-Hartley Act. The ports reopened in chaos. Hundreds of vessels had backed up at West Coast ports. Terminals were awash in cargo. National retailers raised serious doubts about getting holiday merchandise to the stores for the most important shopping season of the year. It took three months for the ports to return to normal.

In this highly charged atmosphere, with the federal mediator now firmly in control of negotiations, Miniace and the ILWU negotiated a contract that gives employers the flexibility they need to implement technology, and equally important, a clearly defined arbitration process with a timeline for binding decisions on technology.

As McKenna takes over implementation of the contract, he can operate under guidelines enshrined in the document. "It's a defined mechanism," McKenna said.

Miniace has no regrets over his tumultuous term as president. "Some guy had to take the heat, and it shouldn't have been the individual employers," he said.

By the same token, now that Miniace has made the tough decisions and achieved a six-year contract that will revolutionize the waterfront, he is probably not the best person to implement the agreement. "Miniace burned so many bridges," said David Olson, a professor of labor studies at the Univer-sity of Washington who specializes in longshore issues. "He came in with a great deal of bravado and imposed things on a whole generation of workers who hadn't seen anything like this."

The ILWU, while happy to see Miniace move on to writing and teaching, does not expect the PMA's management change to alter the new contract's implementation of technology. "The policies stay the same. He has to carry out the policies of the PMA board of directors," said Steve Stallone, an ILWU spokesman.

McKenna describes his style as candid and direct - informing the union what he intends to do and then doing it. "There will be no surprises," he said.

The ILWU agrees that McKenna brings a different personality to the job. "He's more straightforward," Stallone said. Employers say that whether McKenna and ILWU President James Spinosa like each other is irrelevant to implementation of the contract. Each party will be an advocate for his constituents' needs, so personal feelings need not be a factor.

Olson agrees. He said McKenna and Spinosa are in an almost identical situation that ILWU founder Harry Bridges and former PMA President Ed Flynn were in more than 40 years ago as they implemented the M&M Agreement. "They may fight like dogs and cats. They may end up not liking each other personally," Olson said.

The ILWU and PMA leaders successfully implemented the 1960 M&M Agreement because they trusted each other. "There was a level of trust, and a willingness not to compromise the other party," Olson said. "When they agreed on something, they knew their word was good."