EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE, life gets it together and turns into a Frank Capra movie. Last Thursday, in a scene right out of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Bad Guys (a.k.a. the Seattle Port Commission) tried to pull a fast one on the People (us) and were thwarted by the Good Guys, played at this performance mainly by members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Operating Engineers Local 302.
The topic heating up in the Port Commission's glacial chambers at Pier 69 was arcane on the surface: a proposal by Port staff that maintenance on the cranes that load and unload cargo on the Seattle waterfront be turned over to the companies that lease the piers from the port. But the unions that do the maintenance now claim the move would cut union jobs and throw the Port open to nonunion labor.
The Port says the change is needed because it's going to cost $1.5 million more to keep the cranes in working order than crane users like Stevedore Services of America will be paying for their use. And the reason for that, Port number-crunchers say, is that the Port's labor contract calls for maintenance by both electricians and engineers. Turning maintenance over to the companies using the cranes would allow each pier operator to cut its own deal with union or nonunion workers. The unions in question say that even using the Port's own numbers, the year 2000 saw net income from crane operations topping $14 million. They also point out that the Port itself sets the rate it charges tenants for maintenance. Union reps suspect that the so-called deficit was deliberately created to give the Port an excuse to throw out their contract, as a first step toward "privatizing"—thereby de-unionizing—other sectors of its operations as well: warehousing, airport staff and concessions, and more.
With virtually every seat at Thursday's meeting occupied by hostile and contemptuous union sympathizers, commission chair Clare Nordquist tried to take a stern line with this sometimes derisive audience. With the other commissioners cowering silent under the onslaught of passionate and articulate oratory, however, it became clear to Nordquist that if he dropped the gavel the party might well go on without him. Eventually he offered to delay the vote until Tuesday afternoon if union reps would agree to come up with a proposal to avoid flat-out management-labor war on the docks.
Sure enough, Tuesday saw Port director Mic Dinsmore recommend that the commission extend its deadline to Sept. 11, while Port staff and union reps crunch each other's numbers in an effort at compromise. With commissioner Page Miller demanding that the unions bow before the idol of Global Competitiveness, and King County Labor Council's Steve Williamson politely pointing out that his primary concern was worker welfare, there's little reason to believe compromise is possible.
Roger Downey firstname.lastname@example.org