ANCHORAGE - With less than a month before a West Coast longshoremen's contract expires, shipping companies operating in Alaska are girding for a possible strike or work slowdowns. Gov. Tony Knowles, meanwhile, has asked the longshoremen's union to continue loading Alaska-bound ships if a strike occurs.
Neither the International Longshore and Warehouse Union nor the Pacific Maritime Association, both based in San Francisco, will comment on the contract talks that began last month because of a self-imposed news blackout. The three-year contract ends on July 1.
Union spokesman Steve Stallone said that there's been only one strike in 54 years and that the two sides usually work out a contract. The maritime association's chief executive, Joseph Miniace, said he's optimistic that the union shares the goals of modernizing workplace practices and technology. The maritime association represents shipping lines, stevedore companies and terminal operators.
Trucks and jets haul some goods to Alaska. But the threat of a dock workers' strike looms large in the state because the bulk of Alaska's groceries, clothing, furniture, cars and building materials arrives by container ship from the Port of Tacoma.
Frank Peake is Alaska vice president of one of the two major shippers that bring everything from milk to toilet paper to minivans to Alaska.
"I don't think that they've really tackled any of the tough issues yet," said Peake of CSX Lines.
Peake said he's monitoring the labor talks. In the meantime, he's repositioned another ship to handle any spike in inventory to Alaska this month. With the possibility of a strike, department stores and car dealers often increase the amount of goods shipped.
"For this state in particular, it's critical because we only have seven to eight days worth of inventory in many cases. It wouldn't take long for us to be out of milk and bread and what have you," said Peake.
The other major shipping company that serves Alaska, Totem Ocean Trailer Express Inc., or TOTE, is also making contingency arrangements, said Bob McGee, president. McGee declined to offer specifics, saying it wouldn't help the contract talks.
McGee noted that the longshoremen's union hasn't had a work stoppage since 1972. When strikes have loomed in the past, the union has agreed to exempt Alaska because shipping, to a large extent, is the state's economic lifeblood, he said.
Knowles wrote to the union on April 15 asking longshoremen to continue loading ships bound for Alaska even if they strike or stage a work slow down. Knowles said that he recognizes the union's right to withhold labor in the absence of a contract but that to exempt Alaska from any work stoppage would be "a bold statement of partnership with my state."
The union hasn't responded yet but plans to, Stallone said.
Union longshoremen on the West Coast handle 60 percent of commodity freight to Alaska, Knowles said. But Alaska is just a small portion of the overall domestic and international cargo moving through West Coast ports such as Long Beach, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Tacoma.
It's the union's prerogative whether or not to grant Alaska a waiver.
"It's not a slam dunk," Peake said.