Undivided attention

Undivided attention

John Bowers' attention has been divided in recent months. The International Longshoremen's Association president has been working on contract negotiations while dealing with a messy controversy involving union corruption.

The controversy developed after federal indictments accusing ILA officials in Bayonne, N.J., of extorting payoffs for jobs and an ILA vice president from Brooklyn of helping the Mafia rig bids on a contract to manage the ILA's prescription drug plan. Federal prosecutors are trying to use those cases as the foundation for an anti-racketeering lawsuit.

In response, Bowers this month announced an ILA code of ethics that prohibits officers and members from bribes, kickbacks, conflicts of interest and knowingly associating with members or associates of "La Cosa Nostra or any other organized criminal group." The ILA also retained New York attorney Michael F. Armstrong as an independent "ethical practices counsel" to investigate member complaints of corruption or intimidation.

With those tasks accomplished, Bowers said he's ready to concentrate on negotiating a new contract to replace the one that expires Sept. 30 for dockworkers in Atlantic and Gulf ports. The ILA's wage-scale committee, comprising more than 300 members, will meet with officials of the U.S. Maritime Alliance, the employers' umbrella group, Jan. 27-28 in Tampa.

Bowers rejected USMX's first offer last October but said it was a positive first step. The ILA president said he hopes the next meeting will produce a new management offer that can enable the two sides to pick up the pace of negotiations. "I'm going to do nothing but listen to the offer," Bowers said. "When they put something substantial on the table, if it is a good offer, I'll sit down with my people to see where we're going. That's a step toward getting something."

Bowers has repeatedly stressed his desire for a strike-free contract settlement. The ILA president takes pride in the fact that there hasn't been a coastwide strike since he took office in 1987. There have been limited strikes, including a walkout last year that idled Evergreen ships for 28 days in an organizing dispute, but the last coastwide walkout was a 1977 strike that was limited to containerized shipping.

Many importers are watching the ILA talks closely, especially after 2002's acrimonious contract negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association. West Coast ports were closed for 10 days by a management lockout before a six-year contract was finally signed.

ILA officers and members paid close attention to the ILWU bargaining. "We want as much as they gave the people on the West Coast," Bowers said. "We don't want less."

The West Coast contract gave management freer rein to introduce labor-saving technology. In return, the ILWU won continuation of its current high level of medical benefits, increases in pensions to as much as $63,000 after 35 years of service, and pay raises of up to 30 percent over six years to encourage marine clerks whose jobs are automated to become equipment operators.

Medical costs and technology also are issues in ILA negotiations. Bowers said costs for ILA medical benefits have jumped 25 to 30 percent in the last year alone. The ILA and USMX have separately engaged Paul Richardson & Associates to estimate costs of various contract proposals. The ILA's questions to Richardson include comparisons with the ILWU contract. "We want information on the employers' costs, so we can have a comparison," Bowers said. "Where are the employers going to get the money? That's what we want to know."

Bowers also indicated that he wants to revisit a 1996 management commitment to join the ILA in meeting with port authorities to discuss ILA jurisdiction. He said few if any ILA jobs appear to have resulted from that deal. "I'm not happy with the jobs that were supposed to have been created by automation," he said. "We were supposed to see them. I haven't seen too many of them. If we are going to have automation, we want the jobs that were created."

The current ILA contract, which will replace a 1996 agreement that was extended in 2000, allows management to introduce new technology but allows the union to negotiate the impact on the work force. That provision is broadly similar to terms of the new ILWU contract.

Unlike the ILWU, the ILA negotiates its contract in two phases. The master contract covers container and roll-on, roll-off cargo and sets a uniform base wage, currently $27 an hour. Breakbulk and bulk cargo is covered in supplementary local or regional contracts that contain port-specific work rules.

The ILA and the New York Shipping Association, a USMX member, already have begun talks on a local contract for the Port of New York and New Jersey. Bowers said he expects local negotiations to begin soon in other ports.