Black and white dockworkers in this major port city are being forced to act in what both sides concede is their own best interest.

The workers are members of two historically segregated locals of the International Longshoremen's Association (AFL-CIO). Under federal court order to merge by the end of this month, they now are stitching together an agreement to combine forces.

Members of both the exclusively black ILA Local 1419 and the white Local 1418 say that segregation in the waterfront work force has hurt their bargaining position with the shipping industry, represented by the New Orleans Steamship Association.

But both sides have fought for delays in implementation of the merger order issued last February by U.S. District Court Judge Frederick J. R. Heebe.

At the core of the conflict is a question that long has troubled the labor movement.

Can black and white workers unite for a common benefit, sharing equally in the influence of organized labor? Historian Philip S. Foner of Philadelphia says that, for the most part, organized labor has overcome segregation problems.

"But the issue has held on in New Orleans mostly because of tradition. Black and white unions there seem to have their own little niches."

That tradition, reinforced by lingering white racism and black power sentiments stemming from the isolation of segregation, has kept black and white dockworkers here apart.

Theirs is a history filled with irony.

After blacks were emancipated and joined whites in a free labor force, the two races on the New Orleans waterfront tried to unite. In 1865, they marched together, demanding higher wages. In 1892, they were the driving force behind a general strike that shut down this "Queen City of the South" for nearly a week. In 1907, black and white dockworkers struck again for better wages and working conditions.

In each case, Foner says, the city's shipping, commercial and political officials encouraged racial friction in an attempt to destroy labor unity.

The upshot, Foner wrote in a book on unions and black workers, was an agreement among New Orleans dockworkers creating two unions, white and black, both affiliated with the AFL.

The currently segregated locals are the direct descendants of those early unions. The black Local 1419 has an estimated 3,000 members compared to about 700 members in Local 1418. The black local also has more wealth in terms of dues and property -- and more debts.

"Local 1419 is bigger and richer because blacks had more time on the docks in New Orleans," said Duralph S. Hayes, one of three black plaintiffs in a 1971 discrimination case that spawned Judge Heebe's order. "Waterfront labor used to be slave labor and we were the slaves," Hayes said. "

The 1971 suit charged that blacks were assigned the dirtiest, lowest-paying tasks while whites got the better-paying supervisory jobs. Heebe threw out the discrimination charge, but ruled that the existence of "two locals with identical jurisdictions which appear to have no other purpose of existence than the segregation of the black and white races" violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Both races here agree that it is the blacks who have fought hardest against Heebe's merger order. They say the basis for black resistence is fear of losing power.

Local 1419, its defenders say, has operated as a kind of black government in a city that until recently excluded blacks from its social, commercial and political life.

The black local provided financial aid to union and nonunion blacks alike, controlled the city's black vote for several decades, and provided such "little things" as a prom hall for black high schools that were denied access to white dance halls and auditoriums.

"We are a black institution in this city and we wouldn't be merging with the whites if the court wasn't forcing us to do it," said a ranking Local 1419 official. "Whether I like it or not, this [merger] is going to happen and we might as well try to make it work."

Norris Plaisance, president of the white local, claims that white opposition to the merger was the policy of his local's previous administration. o

"I've been in office for only a year and I've been working to end this race stuff," Plaisance said. "It's time we put all of this behind us. We've been letting the employers pit black against white for too long."

IAL leaders here say they have been "making good progress" and hope to have a merger plan draft ready by Tuesday. Representatives of the steamship association were not available for comment.

Briefly, the plan calls for a yet undefined period of transitional leadership in which Alcee P. Honore, the president of the larger black local, would head the new local. Plaisance, the white local president, would serve as executive vice president.

The rest of the transitional leadership would fall along similar lines, with blacks filling top spots and whites acting as assistants.

Leaders of both groups say that they have to work out an immediate solution to "minor problems" -- deciding which local hall will serve as the new meeting place for the merged union, choosingd a name for the new organization, and restructuring dues schedules.

Both blacks and whites concede that Local 1419 will have to stop functioning as a black community organization in the new arrangement. But observers expect the black union leaders to maintain their community functions. o

"There is just no way that we could have survived much longer as two separate labor organizations -- not with the shipping companies getting stronger every day. They would have killed us," Plaisance said.