(Sept. 24) SAN FRANCISCO — Technology is on the table in the ongoing talks between the International Longshore Workers Union and the Pacific Maritime Association.

The technology subcommittee of negotiating representatives from both sides spent the week of Sept. 15 trying to hammer out the details of new technology that could save the ports millions of dollars — but which the union fears could also cost jobs along the way.

This is not the first time technology has been a sticking point in contract negotiations. In 1999, both sides agreed to defer the issue of modernization to a joint committee that never met.

Now, the Pacific Maritime Association is proposing several technological changes to West Coast ports that, while they won’t turn them into fully automated superports like the ones found in Hong Kong, could help ease congestion and speed the flow of traffic

ELECTRONIC RECORDS

One of the changes involves the use of electronic records generated in the originating ports that detail the contents of each container. Currently, that information is retyped into the system by longshore clerks. Shippers also could use electronic tracking systems to organize the way containers are stacked in the ports.

In addition, trucks coming to the terminals could carry electronic cards that contain information on what they are picking up. Truckers now must file paperwork with the clerk upon entry. Computers also could be used to help truckers navigate through the sprawling ports to find their shipments faster.

The union, however, fears that the Pacific Maritime Association will use the technological advances to bring in nonunion workers.

Steve Stallone, president of the union, told the Associated Press that workers are afraid that once the clerks who are on the job retire, their positions will go to nonunion personnel.

“If they can’t bust the union outright, their plan is to have the union wither away,” he said.

The association, on the other hand, argues that while about 400 clerk positions would be cut over the next four years because of technology, the increased productivity would generate union jobs elsewhere in the ports.

Joseph Miniace, president of the association, said in an Associated Press story that he expects the technology could double production at the ports over the next several years from its current level of $300 billion a year.

NO GUARANTEE

Stallone said the association has refused to guarantee the union whatever jobs are created by the new technology.

The association represents more than 30 ports along the West Coast, including ports in Los Angeles; San Francisco; Port Hueneme, Calif.; and Seattle. The ports handle several million metric tons of refrigerated cargo each year.

The Associated Press reported that a recent study by Stephen Cohen, a professor at the University of California-Berkeley, said a strike could cost the U.S. economy $19 billion.

However, the union has said it will not strike and has a history of keeping such promises. A similar dispute in 1999 ended with no strike and the contract being settled two weeks past the deadline.