SAN FRANCISCO (AP) _ A proposed contract to end the labor dispute that shuttered West Coast ports this fall will go up for a vote among rank-and-file dockworkers, now that union leaders have overwhelmingly endorsed the deal.
A delegation of leaders from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union approved the landmark multibillion-dollar, six-year deal Thursday. It was reached with shipping companies last month only after federal intervention.
Approval appeared more likely with word Thursday that representatives of Pacific ports from San Diego to Seattle voted ``overwhelmingly'' to recommend that the union's 10,500 members ratify the deal.
Going into the caucus, some union members had expressed strong reservations.
The deal boasts handsome benefits, including no-cost health insurance, a 60 percent increase in pensions and raises that will let the average longshoreman earn around $90,000 per year. But critics worried that language opening the docks to a new wave of computer technology did not protect union jobs.
After four days of spirited debate, however, lobbying by union leaders swayed skeptics.
``We came out with a contract any union would be proud to achieve,'' union President Jim Spinosa said.
Still, caucus delegates expressed concerns, chiefly over the new cargo-handling technology, which shipping companies insisted must be part of any deal.
The contract would guarantee that all current dock clerks could keep their jobs, but as they retire, about 400 positions wouldn't be filled.
Concerns about the contract included a wage scale that puts more distance between the most-skilled foremen and crane operators and the least-skilled workers.
``Obviously this is an employer proposal to try to create divisions within the union,'' union spokesman Steve Stallone said. ``Nobody likes it. But is that what we're going to turn the contract down on?''
The answer, it turned out, was a resounding no.
Representatives of the shipping companies and port terminal operators who sat across the bargaining table greeted the news with relief.
``There was a lot of tension regarding the acceptance, so this is showing the union is going forward,'' said Joseph Miniace, president of the Pacific Maritime Association. ``I think our customers, the shippers, should be excited.''
The caustic dispute spilled across the nation at the end of September, when the association locked out dockworkers for 10 days in response to what they believed was a coordinated union slowdown.
The economic importance of the 29 major Pacific ports _ which handle more than $300 billion in trade each year _ quickly became clear as auto assembly lines shut down for want of foreign-made parts, farmers fretted over perishable cargo and irate truckers idled in miles-long lines.
Only after President Bush used the Taft-Hartley Act to reopen the ports on Oct. 9 did contract talks progress, with the subtle cajoling of a federal mediator. On Nov. 23, negotiators from both sides inked a tentative deal.
Ballots from the rank-and-file vote on the contract will be counted Jan. 24.