The busiest year on record so far for the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach could be interrupted if bargaining between a small clerical workers union and shipping companies isn't put back on track.
Talks between the union and negotiators representing 16 maritime companies on a new three-year contract broke down over the weekend, days after the union's president threatened to go out on strike if a contract wasn't negotiated immediately.
Yet for now, the 750 members of the office clerical unit of Local 63 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union remain on the job. And the local is set to meet with company representatives today in an effort to restart formal negotiations.
If the clerical workers can't come to terms with management and go out on strike at the Long Beach-Los Angeles complex, the longshoremen, marine clerks and foremen who work at the ports will honor their picket lines, officials of the longshore and warehouse union said Tuesday.
The clerical workers have "the full support" of the union, said Jim Spinosa, president of the ILWU, which represents more than 11,000 workers at seaports along the West Coast.
Members of the office clerical unit handle documentation and paperwork for the shipping containers moving in and out of the ports. Though called "clerks," they are separate from the marine clerks who plan, track and supervise the loading and unloading of cargo.
The clerical workers originally were members of the larger Local 63, which represents the marine clerks, but they formed their own bargaining unit in the mid-1990s with their own officers and contract.
A strike would come at an awkward time for the parent union. The ILWU reached a six-year labor agreement with shipping companies in January 2003, after slowdowns by workers and a lockout by employers crippled operations at West Coast ports. The ILWU is in talks with employers about adding new jobs to meet the rising demands of international trade.
"Of course, we're concerned," said Art Wong, spokesman for the port of Long Beach. It's not clear to what extent operations at the ports would be affected.
John Fageaux Jr., president of the office clerical workers unit, said the major issue was a new software program that allowed customers to book shipments via the Internet, bypassing the clerks. Besides threatening the clerks' jobs, Fageaux said the practice cuts corners on tracking and security.
"This could be disastrous," Fageaux said.
Shipping companies say the program is popular with customers because it saves time and reduces paperwork.