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Port Dispute Centers On Automating Orders

Union charges that letting customers book shipments poses hazards
There's trouble at the docks again. Early last year, West Coast longshore workers and port employers settled a dispute over cargo-tracking technology that threatened jobs. Last week, negotiations resumed over the renewal of a contract covering 7,500 union clerical workers at the California port complex of Long Beach and Los Angeles, who say that shipping companies' use of software that lets customers book shipments over the Internet or an EDI connection to speed orders poses a safety risk.

Customers of some shipping companies, including China Ocean Shipping, Evergreen Marine, and Maersk Sealand, have access to shipping databases. But union rules in effect under the previous contract, which expired June 30, call for clerks, represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63, to book shipments. The union says that without the database cross-checks performed by clerks, a customer could deliberately misclassify goods--including explosive materials that require careful handling--to get a cheaper rate.

"We want to be part of the business process," says John Fageaux Jr., president of Local 63's clerical unit. He wouldn't rule out a work interruption similar to the one in 2002 that cost the economy $1 billion to $2 billion a day. Steve Berry, attorney at law firm Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, representing the employers, says new technology will let employees do more work at the bustling port. Says Berry, "These are the busiest ports in the United States, and we only expect it to get busier."

Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

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