Automation A Sticking Point In Another West Coast Port Dispute

Shipping lines want to let customers book berths, cutting out the need for clerks. The clerks say their roles as security checkpoints cannot be accomplished by software.

A dispute about automation is delaying the renewal of a contract covering 7,500 union clerical workers at the California ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles.

The impasse is preventing the workers and their employers from renewing a contract that expired June 30. The employees are represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63. Employers include Maersk Sealand, Evergreen, Cosco, and China Shipping.

Negotiations ended July 4 after a 23-hour session. Informal talks were supposed to resume Wednesday. The dispute centers on efficiencies made possible by communication software that enables customers to access shipping-line databases via the Internet or EDI. Customers can do that now, however, union rules call for clerks to actually book shipments.

Using third-party apps, shipping customers can book containers online. Some shipping firms have implemented these systems to automate the process and speed orders. The union maintains that this presents a safety hazard and that all orders should be cleared through clerks.

When a customer calls to book a container, clerks type the customer information into a database, crosscheck it with other databases, quote a shipping rate, and verify the customer's information.

The companies want to take the clerks out of their intermediary and, they claim, duplicative role.

"We are not fighting the technology. We want to be part of the business process," says John Fageaux Jr., president of Local 63's clerical unit. "We need to check the integrity of the information as it comes through."

Without a security check, a customer could deliberately misclassify goods to be shipped in order to get a cheaper rate.

Fageaux says that's what happened two months ago when a container came into the TransPacific Container Terminal in Long Beach classified as the less-dangerous and less-costly "freight of all kinds." In fact, he says, it contained a propane tank that exploded before being loaded. Fageaux says the container in question had been scheduled for loading close to hazardous material on a ship.

He wouldn't rule out a work interruption similar to the 10-day Longshoreman lockout in 2002 at West Coast ports that cost the economy $1 billion a day.

Lawyers representing the shipping lines could not be reached for comment on deadline.

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