A six-year contract covering thousands of West Coast dockworkers is set to expire Tuesday, but both sides insist they want to keep the ports...

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LOS ANGELES — A six-year contract covering thousands of West Coast dockworkers is set to expire Tuesday, but both sides insist they want to keep the ports running smoothly — even if they have to keep talking after the deadline.

That would be a welcome break for the already teetering U.S. economy, since the billions of dollars in cargo handled by those ports represents about 11 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product.

In addition, neither side wants a replay of the bitter, 10-day lockout in 2002 that caused an estimated $15 billion in economic losses.

“The hope is we can reach an agreement without the kind of disruption that we’ve seen in the past,” said Steve Getzug, spokesman for the Pacific Maritime Association, which represents 72 shipping companies.

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union said it had no plans to call for a strike-authorization vote by members at the 29 ports covered under the contract.

In a joint statement, the two sides said they were “committed to resolving outstanding issues at the table and to keep West Coast ports running.”

About 26,000 workers would be affected by the new contract.

Shippers have said the average full-time dockworker made $136,000 in 2007, placing them among the best-paid blue-collar workers in the nation.

The union disputes that figure, stressing that only about 10,000 of the 25,000 workers covered by the current contract work full time or more hours.

Paul Bingham, an economist with the research firm Global Insight, said a prolonged labor disruption could prompt shippers to permanently reroute their goods through Canada, Mexico or the Panama Canal.

“They have to keep in mind that if they scare away some business, they might not get it back because there are more alternatives than there ever were before,” Bingham said.

Bingham says the talks could last through the summer.

In a sign of progress, the union already has reached a deal with shippers on a health-care plan expected to cost about $500 million this year.

The union had sought to retain its fully funded plan that required no worker contributions, had zero deductibles and provided $1 drug prescriptions. Shippers wanted to contain costs, which they said had climbed from $202 million in 2002 to $419 million last year.

Neither side revealed the details of the new plan but called it a major accomplishment in the negotiations.

Differences remain, however, on wages, pensions and safety procedures sought after 13 workers died on the job since 2002, union spokesman Craig Merrilees said.

The shipping association also is pushing to maintain worker productivity as the ports move more cargo in the coming years.

The ports handled 12.2 million cargo containers last year and accounted for an annual domestic impact of $1.2 trillion, about 11 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product, the association said.

That volume marked a 45 percent increase from 2002.

The twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach alone handled about 40 percent of the nation’s container cargo.

In response to the lockout in 2002, President Bush became the first president in a quarter-century to invoke the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 and ask a federal judge to force some 10,500 workers back to work to help resolve a national economic crisis.

The judge consented, paving the way to a mediated settlement during a cooling-off period. The deal introduced computerized cargo tracking in exchange for increased compensation and pension benefits.

The tone of the talks this time around seems more productive than in 2002.

“There’s cautious optimism that we can reach an agreement that is fair and reasonable for both sides,” Getzug said.

Starting July 14, nearly 100 union delegates will meet in San Francisco, either to review a tentative deal or make plans for how to push talks along, Merrilees said.