Peace at Last

Peace at Last

Copyright 2002, Traffic World, Inc.

This summer I escaped from a high-rise apartment that stood in the way of a new bridge on Interstate 95 over the Potomac River. I ended up in a tidy, tree-lined neighborhood on land that was once part of George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation.

With the pride of home ownership, I also have several bleeding blisters from a weekend of leaf raking. It was a family bonding and learning experience with my wife Tracy and son Charlie. The learning came after I saw Tracy raking a good 10 or 15 feet into our neighbor's yard.

"How are we going to keep up with the Joneses when you are doing their work for them?" I asked my beautiful wife. "I'm just being polite," Tracy answered. The next day we found our neighbor had repaid her labor two- or three-fold.

Out on the West Coast docks, a nasty neighborhood feud is over. Leaders of the Pacific Maritime Association and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have agreed to a new six-year contract. Most of the details will not be released until after the contract is ratified, but we know that each side has given up something to his neighbor and received something in return.

The dispute isn't over yet. The union negotiating team still needs to sell the contract to a caucus of union leaders and then to members. Longshore workers and marine clerks will vote next month on ratification. But ILWU President James Spinosa said he's sure the deal will be approved.

The key to the contract was agreement on the issue of introducing technology to the docks to speed cargo and make record-keeping more accurate. The union yielded but didn't surrender. The union still will be able to dispute the terms of implementation of new technology, but management got improvements to the arbitration process to solve the disputes.

The union won undisclosed pay raises and a more than 60 percent increase in pension benefits, costs that will be paid by the stevedore companies and ultimately by maritime carriers and their shipper customers. The new costs are not expected to be passed down to the stevedore companies until after 2003, but large increases will be necessary in the latter years of the new contract.

The contract agreement announcements and photo ops were a sharp contrast to the acrid exchanges that characterized the last several months. Photos showed Spinosa grinning and joking with PMA President and CEO Joseph Miniace. Federal mediator Peter Hurtgen praised both for "statesmanlike leadership."

Miniace said, "It is time to usher in a new era of mutual respect and trust between the PMA and ILWU." Spinosa said his union "looks forward to working with PMA to make West Coast ports even more efficient and profitable through the new technology enhancements in this contract."

With hindsight it is easy to understand the speedy settlement. The ILWU did not command the sympathy that UPS Teamsters did during their 1997 strike. With a 40-hour week, longshore workers earn more than $106,000 a year and clerks and supervisors earn a lot more than that. Pensions are huge, benefits are fully paid and jobs are handed down through families like royal fiefdoms.

One observer said this new contract guarantees six years of labor peace. I doubt that, with ILWU's penchant for brief ad hoc strikes that have nothing to do with their jobs. But the new dock contract is one of many things we have to be thankful for. Congratulations to the ILWU and the PMA on reaching this agreement, but their work isn't done. Now it is time for both union and management to work hard to repay shippers and carriers for the huge losses they incurred during the 10-day lockout and labor slowdown.