LOS ANGELES – Beating back an effort by employers to bust their union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union reached a tentative agreement with the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) last week.

“This is a momentous day for our union, a landmark victory for longshore workers and their families,” James Spinosa, ILWU international president, told a press conference in San Francisco. “We succeeded in bringing new technology to our ports while achieving vital pension and economic security, strong health care benefits and safety protections.”

While it must be approved by the West Coast union caucus and voted on by ILWU members, the accord is seen as a great achievement. “From a 13-day lockout by the PMA, to the imposition of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act by President Bush, and PMA maneuvering – including false charges of docker slowdowns, the union has overcome all odds by coming to an agreement that upholds the core principles the ILWU brought to the negotiation table,” Steve Stallone, ILWU communications director, told the World.

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka, who sat in negotiations to remind the PMA that 13.5 million AFL-CIO union workers stood by the dockers, said, “The ILWU has negotiated a truly historic contract for its members. … This is a tremendous victory for the ILWU and the entire labor movement.”

Calling the deal an example of how labor can adapt to modernization efforts and win, Trumka continued, “Workers can harness technology and make it work for them. They can bridle it, saddle it and ride it to job, pension and economic security.”

PMA head Joseph Miniace told the media that the health care won by the union, which costs $220 million a year now, will cost the PMA $500 million a year by the end of the contract. Stallone points out that at the beginning of negotiations the PMA was calling for a 40 percent cut in the health care package. “At this time, many unions are forced into negotiating contracts with co-payments and cutbacks in health care, so this is an extraordinary achievement,” said Stallone.

The proposed agreement increases pension benefits by more than 50 percent, to a maximum of $63,000. Spinosa called the pension issue “the bottom line” of the agreement with “the increased efficiency and cost savings resulting from the technology improvements in this contract now rightfully resulting in pension protection for ILWU members and their families.”

Widows will receive up to $10,000 more a year, a substantial gain for senior women on fixed incomes.

The agreement extends union jurisdiction to any new jobs created by the introduction of technology. The union also won back jurisdiction over the yard and rail planning jobs. That will result in stopping the PMA’s outsourcing of those jobs, one of the most contentious issues of these negotiations.

The introduction of scanners and new technology will eliminate 400 jobs but this will be offset by the extended jurisdiction for new jobs created and the termination of outsourcing. The agreement also provides that every registered clerk working today will get a guaranteed paycheck for a five-day week. If there isn’t enough work, they will get five days anyway. While there is plenty of work at the Los Angeles port, other areas that do not have as much work will benefit from this provision.

Another factor is that trade is expected to expand and the volume of containers will create more jobs. The agreement would increase wages $3 per hour over six years.

New safety provisions were adopted. This is important for longshore workers who risk their lives daily in the country’s second most hazardous profession. This year, five workers have died on the job.

The agreement calls for a six-year contract, a length unions often try to avoid, but Stallone points out that “within the framework of the union busting attack they were under it makes sense.”

The results of the 2002 elections did not help the union’s cause, and threats by some Republican members of Congress to introduce union-busting legislation was a factor for the union. A six-year contract establishes stability in the industry, and that could offset such threats although the anti-labor assault by the Bush administration and Republicans provide no guarantees.

Stallone said consideration was given to the fact that the pension and health benefit package was tied to the six-year contract. The Taft-Hartley Act established deadlines for a settlement. The tentative agreement was reached just before the PMA would have been allowed to make a “last, best and final offer,” which would have gone directly to the union members for a vote conducted by the National Labor Relations Board.

Stallone told the World, “We owe a great deal to all of labor, many elected officials, community organizations and transport workers from around the world who stood by us in our time of need.”

The Longshore Caucus, a representative assembly of delegates from all locals on the West Coast, is scheduled to meet in San Francisco the week of Dec. 9. A membership ratification vote is expected to be completed by early January.

The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com