US suit over container cargo terms perils longshoremen settlement

The federal government has tossed a monkey wrench into a tentative longshoremen's settlement. A federal suit is seeking an injunction against terms that would give the International Longshoremen's Association (ILA) wider control over container cargo.

If the government wins, shipping from Maine to Texas could be tied up when present contracts run out Sept. 30.

Union and industry had hoped until Sept. 11 to announce a three-year contract by midmonth. Wages had been set at $15, $16, and $17 an hour in the next three years. It was also agreed to extend the ILA's container-handling jurisdiction to 50 miles from ports.

The ILA and the Carrier Container Council, representing 200 employers in 36 ports, were jolted when the Federal Maritime Commission (FMC) challenged the container control terms in court Sept. 6. Negotiations broke off. On Sept. 20 the union urged longshoremen to reject the tentative settlement in voting Sept. 28 and to approve a walkout Oct. 1.

The union said the suit has ''created grave uncertainties in the industry'' that could force renegotiation of the master contract. If the injunction is issued, it said, the present settlement ''no longer is realistic.''

The 50-mile jurisdiction sought by ILA has been a controversial issue for years. For the union, thousands of jobs are at stake.

The use of containers - huge, boxlike, and mobile - has revolutionized shipping over the past 15 years. Originally, cargo was delivered to docks by rail or truck, unloaded there, and then reloaded into ships by longshoremen. Incoming cargo was similarly handled. Now cargo is loaded into containers, generally far from ILA jurisdiction.

The ILA has fought for years for the 50-mile jurisdiction, a distance that would give the union control over the loading and unloading of most containers with cargo from more than one shipper. This has brought it into conflict with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and other unions at freight collection depots, many with contracts calling for lower wages and fewer fringes.

After the issue had been in limbo for more than a decade, the National Labor Relations Board supported ILA's claim that the extended container jurisdiction should be allowed as ''a valid form of work preservation.'' This apparently cleared the way for ILA to negotiate work rules, agreed to by employers in July, that would give the union broader control of container handling.

A frozen-meat importer in New Orleans challenged the rules, and on Sept. 6 the FMC went into federal courts seeking to enjoin the 50-mile rule as inequitable. Its challenge was supported by 23 employers who claimed they would be harmed by the changed rules.

ILA president Thomas W. Gleason Sr. and James J. Dickmen, head of the New York Shipping Association, representing 108 employers, criticized the FMC action and its timing, so close to the end of the ILA contracts.

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