A time bomb is ticking in the Pacific Northwest, and if it goes off, the effects will be felt at ports throughout North America.

About 35 percent of the independent truck drivers who shuttle containers to and from marine terminals in Seattle and Tacoma went out on strike for two weeks in August. Now they have given shipping lines and trucking companies in the two ports until Sept. 30 to guarantee them improved wages and better working conditions. If the port community does not come up with an acceptable plan, the drivers will go back on strike.Meanwhile, a three-week strike in British Columbia, Canada, was settled in late August when the Vancouver Port Authority brokered a settlement that resulted in a licensing program for trucking companies and, in a revolutionary move, a system of hourly wages for drivers.

Owner-operators at many ports face the same conditions that confront harbor truckers in the Northwest. Several years ago, independent truckers staged repeated job actions in Los Angeles and Long Beach. The Port of Houston has faced similar problems.

Last week, independent truckers in Baltimore ended a weeklong job action after voting to affiliate with the International Longshoremen's Association. Meanwhile, truckers are mounting a campaign to organize drivers in Norfolk, Va.; Charleston, S.C.; Savannah, Ga., and Jacksonville, Fla.

Intermodal shipping has generated comfortable, middle-class wages for longshoremen and employees of port authorities, shipping lines and railroads, but truck drivers continue to languish at the end of the food chain. (See column on Page 8.) Drivers, most of whom own their trucks, are paid on a per-trip basis. They contract with trucking companies that charge a fee to the shipping lines or consignees who pay the intermodal bill.

Trucking companies keep a portion of the fee and pass the rest on to the drivers. When marine terminals are operating efficiently, drivers can complete enough trips each day to cover their expenses and earn a profit. Unfortunately, terminals are often congested. When drivers sit in long lines, their earning power can be cut in half.

This is what is happening in ports across the country. A poll by the AFL-CIO and the Teamsters found that the average wait time in Seattle and Tacoma was three hours, and this reduced drivers' wages to $8.51 an hour. Interest and principal on loans taken out by truckers on their vehicles average $1,082 per month. Do the math. They're not making a good living for their families.

During their 30-day cooling-off period, the drivers in Seattle and Tacoma are pushing for higher pay, a plan to reduce congestion at marine terminals and recognition as a union. They based their demands on the plan that was successfully hammered out in Vancouver. But the situation in Vancouver was different from U.S. ports. Vancouver is an operating port. It was free to set up a reservation system for port users, and it has sufficient influence to enforce an hourly wage system that compensates drivers for waiting time.

Most U.S. ports are landlord ports. They lease their terminals to private companies, and their influence over tenants is limited. Also, U.S. antitrust laws prohibit collective bargaining between trucking companies and independent contractors over wages and working conditions. It will therefore be interesting to see if the organizing of drivers by the ILA in Baltimore will stand up.

The port community in Seattle and Tacoma can, however, improve working conditions and earnings for drivers. The key to improving productivity at marine terminals is to keep the gates open longer and continue working through the lunch hour. This is simple, but costly, in terms of longshore wages. Shipping lines and terminal operators can not be forced to do this, but if they don't, they could face another trucking strike.

If terminal gates remain open longer, receiving warehouses, many of which work a normal 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. day, must also stay open longer. Once again, it's costly, but it's better than going through a protracted strike. If congestion still occurs during peak traffic periods, it may be necessary to pay drivers waiting time. In the end, importers and exporters will see their freight bills increase, but an efficient intermodal transportation system will be worth the extra cost.

If Seattle and Tacoma can resolve their trucking crisis, they will establish a model for all U.S. ports. Intermodalism has been good to most of the participants in the intermodal chain. It's time that independent truck drivers share in these benefits.