West Coast dockworkers, shipping companies reach tentative agreement

WASHINGTON -- West Coast dockworkers and shipping companies reached a tentative six-year contract agreement early Sunday, potentially ending a long, caustic labor dispute that closed the ports and prompted presidential intervention.

Chief federal mediator Peter Hurtgen praised both sides, saying lead negotiators in San Francisco "demonstrated statesmenlike leadership, which made this agreement possible."

Hurtgen, head of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, would not offer details of the tentative agreement, but characterized it as "historic."

Hurtgen said the tentative agreement provides "substantial improvements in wages and benefits for union members and also provides the necessary technology and dispute-resolution improvements needed to ensure that America's West Coast ports continue to modernize and increase both efficiency and productivity."

The agreement still must be ratified by a majority of the 10,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in a vote likely to take place after the Thanksgiving holiday, Hurtgen said.

President Bush, in a statement issued by the White House early Sunday, said: "This agreement is good for workers, good for employers and it's good for the American economy. I congratulate labor and management for working together to successfully resolve their disagreement."

The Pacific Maritime Association, which represents the shipping companies, had locked out dockworkers at the 29 major Pacific ports for 10 days, causing Bush to invoke a little-used law to open the docks Oct. 9 to avoid an economic crisis.

The lockout began after shipping companies accused the union of an illegal work slowdown during contract negotiations.

"With this contract we are ushering in a new era of modernization," said Joseph Miniace, president of the PMA. "It's also time to usher in a new era of mutual respect and trust between the PMA and ILWU."

Union President Jim Spinosa said the ILWU leadership fully supported the agreement and that a caucus of about 100 rank-and-file members will meet Dec. 9 to "validate and ratify" the pact. They will then visit hiring halls in 29 major Pacific ports to urge dock workers to approve the contract offer.

"We feel that what we have will improve West Coast productivity and keep trade coming here," Spinosa said.

The ports handle more than $300 billion in trade each year. Some economists estimated that the U.S. economy lost $1 billion each day as cargo piled up at the docks and ships waited at anchor offshore. Some factories shut down for lack of supplies.

Bush was the first president in 24 years to invoke the emergency provision of the Taft-Hartley Act in an attempt to halt a labor dispute. He also was the first president in history to use the act to stop a lockout, not a strike.

Taft-Hartley has been invoked 11 times in port disputes in the past, of which only nine were successfully resolved.

In this dispute, the union's contract ended in July. Sticking points had centered on shipping companies' desire for computerized cargo tracking systems that will make dockside work more efficient, but also cost jobs. The union in return wanted increased compensation and pension benefits.


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