Spoil Ports

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GRID DOCK Cargo stacks up in LA amid a dispute over computer technologies

A dockworker's job has long been dirty and dangerous, as memorialized in the Marlon Brando movie On the Waterfront. Workers have struggled against shipping magnates and corrupt union bosses alike to improve working conditions and push full-time wages up to an average of $106,000 a year. But in the proud history of the longshoremen, this is surely the first time ports have been shut down to preserve the right of a few hundred unionized shipping clerks to keep using pencils and clipboards instead of computers and electronic scanners.

That, at least, is the view of the shipping companies and operatorsthat locked out their 10,500 dockworkers on the West Coast after accusing them of staging a slowdown to resist the introduction of much-needed new technologies. Within days, the $300 billion in cargo that each year surges through the 29 Pacific ports had come to a standstill. Some 160 ships loaded with everything from bananas to Nissan 350Zs began stacking up around the harbors of San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, Calif., Portland, Ore., and Seattle while idling truck drivers were loaded down with wine, apples and cotton#151;the perishable exports of U.S. farmers and companies needing to sell their goods around the world.

While the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and port employers resumed contract talks with the help of a federal mediator, little progress was evident. The impasse was costing businesses an estimated $2 billion a day, and threatened an already slumping U.S. economy that depends more than ever on a just-in-time supply chain. The West Coast docks support an estimated 4 million jobs across the U.S. In Fremont, Calif., an auto assembly plant owned jointly by GM and Toyota had to stop production for lack of engines and transmissions, idling 5,100 workers. Such retailers as the Gap, Target and Wal-Mart, which expect to do 40% of their annual business during the holiday season, would suffer a blow to their profits from any long disruption in supplies of toys, apparel and appliances from the Far East.

"Everything is backing up like plumbing," says Robin Lanier, executive director of the West Coast Waterfront Coalition, which represents retailers and manufacturers that depend on the ports. The coalition has called on President George W. Bush to use his authority under the Taft-Hartley Act to impose an 80-day cooling-off period. But as long as a mediator is meeting with both sides, Bush is unlikely to intervene.

Though they serve as a gateway to the U.S. tech economy, some corners of the West Coast ports still operate as if they're stuck in the early 1900s, costing an estimated $1 billion in inefficiencies each year. Many clerks carry clipboards, tracking transactions with grease pencil and paper. When they use computers, they usually insist on re-entering all data themselves, even though it could easily be transmitted electronically from other ports. Modern ports in Rotterdam, Hong Kong and Singapore move three times as many trucks through their terminals every hour as their West Coast counterparts do.

With West Coast cargo volume expected to double in the next decade, shipping companies and port operators want to deploy everything from bar-code scanners and smart cards to remote cameras and sophisticated tracking software. Truckers would no longer have to fill out long forms about what they're picking up or dropping off; they could instead slide an electronic card through a reader or use a radio-frequency-controlled fast pass and be immediately dispatched to the right location.

More than the technology itself, the real issue, as with so many labor-management face-offs, is control. Management has promised to find new jobs at the same wages for 300 to 400 clerks who would be displaced by the new automated systems, but the union wants assurances that any newly created jobs will fall under its jurisdiction instead of being outsourced. "If the work changes," says union spokesman Steve Stallone, "we just want to ensure that we're the ones still doing the work." In today's hard times, though, the rest of the country mainly just wants to ensure that the work gets done.

?Reported by Laura A. Locke/San Francisco