U.S. West Coast dockworkers reached a tentative agreement with shipping companies late Saturday. In September and October, a labor dispute temporarily shut down 29 West Coast ports, sending shudders through economies from the United States to Asia, and prompting President Bush to intervene. If workers accept the agreement, the docks will get a high tech overhaul.
Technology was the main issue in the dispute. Port operators want computerized systems to track cargo, which the unions worried would cost the workers jobs. Both sides say up to 500 jobs will, in fact, be eliminated, as new bar code readers speed the processing of shipments.
Few details of the agreement have been released, but negotiators say workers will receive substantial wage increases and added pension protection. News reports suggest the dockworkers can expect pay raises of 10 to 15 percent over the next six years.
West Coast ports handle $300 billion a year in cargo and the earlier 10-day shutdown sent shockwaves through the U.S. economy. On October 8, President Bush ordered the ports reopened for 80 days, under a law that gives him the power to intervene if a work stoppage threatens U.S. health or safety.
A spokesman for the port operators said the agreement reached this weekend ushers in "a new era of modernization," and allows West Coast ports to remain competitive. If the workers approve the settlement, it will provide stability in port operations for the six-year duration of the contract.
Economist Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation says the agreement offers U.S. business owners peace of mind. "The normal contract is generally only for a three-year term, but this one goes for six," he says. "The other thing, of course, is the implementation of technology on West Coast docks. So this means we'll be able to move more cargo, which is coming."
The economist says the expansion of China as a manufacturing center makes efficient West Coast ports even more important, because they process most U.S. shipments from Asia. West Coast port officials expect cargo levels to double in seven years.
On December 9, a caucus of 100 union members will vote on the contract. All union members will then vote to approve or reject it, probably in early January, according to union officials. James Spinosa, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, predicts his members will accept the agreement, which he calls a "win-win" settlement for business, labor and the U.S. economy.