LOS ANGELES – The situation remains tense on the West Coast as dock workers and employers continue to battle on a contract in the wake of the ticking time clock of the Bush administration-imposed Taft-Hartley 80-day cooling-off period, which will end on Dec. 27.

While resolve is potentially close, the main obstacle at this point continues to be focused on the pension issue as it relates to the introduction of new technology. While the first part of the technology package on union jurisdiction has been signed off in a tentative agreement, what is holding back agreement on the whole package is whether employers will accept the union’s proposal on pension increases.

The ILWU has stated from the inception of these talks that any financial benefits to employers as the result of new technology should be shared by workers.

A Nov. 20 article in the San Francisco Chronicle, using Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) figures, revealed that the PMA “sweetened their (pension) offer” by proposing a pension increase to $50,000 per year, up from $39,900. But, according to Steve Stallone, ILWU communications director, what the Chronicle failed to report is that this offer is based upon a 35-year retirement. Many longshore workers retire with less than 35 qualifying years, so their benefits would be much less than $50,000. “This is another example of how the PMA uses true numbers to tell lies,” said Stallone.

Another factor related to the nature of the current industry is that many longshore workers today begin their careers at a later age, starting in their 30s and 40s. That means these workers would be receiving less pension benefits as well.

In the meantime, the International Mass Retail Association, the National Retail Federation and nearly 200 other groups have written to both sides of the table urging both parties to settle by warning that “a strike or some other major port disruption will bring a devastating blow to the already fragile U.S. economy.”

Stallone said that those “sky is falling” words by retailers are ironic. “If the work that longshore workers do is so important to the economy, then the pension demands of 10,500 workers should be an easy matter to resolve in a thriving industry where new technology will be profitable to employers,” he said.

In a written statement by ILWU International President James Spinosa, read by ILWU Legislative Director Lindsay McLaughlin, to the National Industrial Transportation League last Monday in Los Angeles, Spinosa said, “The implementation of advanced technologies has already generated huge savings for the industry, and it is safe to assume that the future will see even greater revenues as we introduce even more efficient systems. It is our union’s belief that, since it has been the cooperation and dedication of union workers that have made these advances possible, it is only reasonable to expect that some of the wealth created through our efforts today should be put toward securing our members’ pensions for tomorrow.”

“Our retirees deserve a standard of living that affords them the same dignity and respect that they brought to their work for so many years,” Spinosa continued.

Stallone estimates that once the pension issue is resolved the final tentative agreement on the entire contract will soon follow. Health benefits, a bottom line issue for the union, were already agreed upon. Issues of wages and arbitration still remain.

Negotiations will continue until Nov. 23. If not resolved by then, federal mediators will adjourn negotiations for the Thanksgiving week, reassembling Dec. 3 in Washington, D.C. That is also the date that the PMA will be presenting its last, best and final offer. According to the Taft-Hartley law, if a negotiated agreement has not been arrived at by the 60-day point of the injunction, then employers get to present a last, best and final offer, which will be taken directly to union members for a vote conducted by the National Labor Relations Board. “This is another one of the advantages that Taft-Hartley gives to the employers,” said Stallone. “It gives them an incentive not to come to agreement.”

Richard Trumka, national secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, continues to sit in at the negotiating table in San Francisco, a forceful reminder to the Pacific Maritime Association that the 13-million member labor powerhouse stands fully at the side of the ILWU.

The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com

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