Report from ringside

Report from ringside

It was hyped as the fight of the century, a championship bout matching the challenger, Joe Miniace, against titleholder Jim Spinosa, known for his powerful left.

The pre-fight publicity buildup began months before the combatants entered the ring. Even the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN, which seldom pay attention to waterfront fisticuffs, devoted space to this year's contract negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Maritime Association. President Bush sought regular updates.

As is usually the case in the dubious sport of boxing, the advance hype may have been a tad overblown. It's still early in the millennium to declare a fight of the century, and it's questionable whether the combatants can be properly classified as heavyweights.

Still, there's no denying the importance of this year's PMA-ILWU confrontation. The nation's economy is increasingly dependent on West Coast ports, which handle more than half of U.S. containerized imports. Port users and their customers have been raising hell about inefficiency and delays. A big purse was on the line.

The PMA, having lost a long series of knockouts, TKOs and unanimous decisions, proclaimed this would be the year it would reclaim the championship belt. Miniace and his backers announced their determination to negotiate changes making it easier for terminal operators to introduce labor-saving technology at West Coast ports. They were cheered on by their supporters in the expensive ringside seats - the ones occupied by shippers, carriers and terminal operators.

There was the usual back-and-forth jawing in advance of the fight. Each side accused the other of being reluctant to begin negotiations.

The bout's early rounds were inconclusive. For more than two months, while the PMA tried to force the issue of technology into the open, the ILWU refused to discuss anything but medical benefits. Spinosa positioned himself defensively at ringside, waiting for his opponent to tire himself with ineffective blows.

The ILWU's rope-a-dope strategy worked. The PMA acceded to union demands for continuation of current medical benefits with no paycheck deductions and with copayments of only $1 for everything from heart medicine to Viagra. The ILWU was the clear winner of that round.

Then came the first real exchange of punches. While sparring over benefits, the two sides had agreed to a series of one-day contract extensions past the previous agreement's July 1 expiration. In late September, the union refused further extensions and began work slowdowns. Miniace, declaring that the PMA wouldn't pay ILWU members for not working, locked them out for 10 days, effectively closing West Coast ports.

That grabbed the attention of national news media, most of which were clueless, and the Bush administration, which used the Taft-Hartley Act to reopen the ports under an 80-day cooling-off period. The lockout upset carriers' schedules and shippers' supply chains, but failed to generate the public outrage many PMA supporters had anticipated. The PMA, however, probably realized that a federal mediator would be needed to break the contract impasse, and that the only way to get one was by calling a lockout or taking a strike. On my scorecard, this round was a draw.

Each side complained of low blows. The PMA said the ILWU was intentionally working slowly to prolong the cargo backlog that developed during the lockout. The union claimed its members were being unfairly criticized.

As the fight entered its final rounds, the ILWU sensed its opponent was getting weary, and scored with a flurry of punches. Management agreed to sweeten the ILWU's pension plan, giving retirees $63,000 a year after 35 years of work. Skill-differential bonuses were increased, especially for crane operators, many of which will continue to collect extra pay through side deals with terminal operators. The union also won language expanding jurisdiction to planners of yard and on-dock rail operations.

The PMA landed a few punches of its own. Management secured contract language to allow the phase-out of ILWU gate clerks. It won freedom to employ skilled "steadyman" crane drivers more regularly. It won permission to introduce technology, but only after a multi-step consultation process that could require weeks before an arbitrator's final decision.

When the bell ended the final round, both combatants were still on their feet. In contrast to other recent PMA-ILWU encounters, this fight stayed competitive to the end. Neither side scored a knockout. But my scorecard shows the ILWU ahead on points.