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Port Agreement Reached

WASHINGTON — West Coast dockworkers and shipping operators reached a tentative contract agreement late Saturday and moved another step closer to ending a labor dispute that closed the 29 major West Coast ports for 10 days in October, cost the...

WASHINGTON — West Coast dockworkers and shipping operators reached a tentative contract agreement late Saturday and moved another step closer to ending a labor dispute that closed the 29 major West Coast ports for 10 days in October, cost the economy billions and created anxiety for retailers trying to stock their shelves for the holidays.

Chief federal mediator Peter Hurtgen, called the deal “historic,” although he declined to give details about the six-year contract, pending notification of the union and shipping firm memberships. He did say the agreement provides for improvements in wages and benefits for union members, as well as “the necessary technology to ensure the ports continue to modernize and increase efficiency and productivity.”

The agreement must still be ratified by a majority of the 10,500 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. A caucus will meet Dec. 9, according to union president James Spinosa, who said the ILWU fully supported the pact. The full membership would vote shortly after.

In a statement issued by the White House Sunday, President Bush said, “This agreement is good for workers, good for employers and good for the American economy. I congratulate labor and management for working together to successfully resolve their disagreement.”

A major sticking point in the negotiations was shippers’ desires to phase in new technologies, such as bar-code readers, which would replace handwritten logs and, in theory, allow cargo to move through the ports faster. The union was concerned the new technology would cut some clerk jobs and — more importantly — that the people hired to use the new technology would not be union labor.

At a news conference Sunday morning at the Omni Hotel in downtown San Francisco, Hurtgen appeared with Spinosa and Pacific Maritime Association president and ceo Joseph Miniace. Hurtgen said the contract, which is twice the length of past agreements, will “provide stability for the industry and economy.”

In agreeing to implement new technologies, the union will lose some jobs, but will retain the traditional jurisdiction so that new jobs created by technology will come under union control instead of being outsourced.

The parties reached a tentative agreement on technology several weeks ago, as reported, but have been hammering out ways to fund pension increases since then. It was agreed that some technology-related savings will be plowed into union pensions.

Spinosa said he believes his union membership “will be very pleased with the package. This is a great victory for the ILWU and the labor movement.”

Both sides suffered bad press and national frustration as produce rotted, plants shut down for lack of parts and time-sensitive goods, like the disposable cameras meant as giveaways for the World Series, went undelivered. Textile companies and manufacturers had orders cancelled; major retailers, including Target Stores Inc., had holiday and private label goods hung up.

Retailers struggling to get inventories in shape for holiday shopping seem to have accomplished that goal, with problems associated with the port situation more or less accounted for (see related story on Christmas shopping starting on page one).

At the news conference, both sides tried to undo the damage, referring to new protocols for dispute resolution. “We are entering into period of mutual cooperation and respect,” said Miniace.