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Port labor talks shift into higher gear, but strike continues

December 01, 2012|By Ronald D. White
  • Striking workers carry pickets outside the APM Terminal at the Port of Los Angeles. Talks aimed at resolving the 5-day-old strike were continuing on Saturday.
Striking workers carry pickets outside the APM Terminal at the Port of Los… (David McNew / Getty Images )

In a potentially hopeful sign, contract talks in the now 5-day-old strike at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach went all night Friday and into early Saturday morning.

"Representatives of the harbor employers and [union] leadership have resumed negotiations today in an effort to reach a fair agreement that will end the strike," according to a statement released Saturday by the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Assn., which represents some of the world's largest shipping lines and terminal operators.

The strike, by the 800-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit, has shut down 10 of the 14 cargo container terminals at the nation's busiest seaport complex.

In 2011, the two ports handled 14 million cargo containers. The next five biggest U.S. ports combined -- New York-New Jersey, Savannah, Oakland, Seattle, and Virginia -- moved only slightly more, at 14.6 million containers.

Even more telling of the two ports' economic impact, they last year handled 39.5% of the total value of all container imports entering the U.S. from origins worldwide, according to Jock O'Connell, international trade economist and adviser to Beacon Economics.

O'Connell and other economists have placed the impact of the strike at about $1 billion a day in forfeited worker pay, missing revenue for truckers and other businesses, and the value of the cargo that has been diverted to other ports.

O'Connell added that, based on last November's trade flows through the ports, the closures are stranding an estimated $1.125 billion worth of merchandise a day.

The union, which handles the vast amount of paperwork associated with the ports' container cargo, has been working without a contract since June 30, 2010.

Its strike has crippled the port because of support from the ILWU dockworkers, who have 50,000 members on the U.S. West Coast, in Canada and in Hawaii. The dockworkers negotiate their contracts separately, but the 10,000 members who work at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports have honored the smaller union's picket lines.

As a result, seven of the eight cargo container terminals at the Port of Los Angeles remain closed. Three of the six cargo container terminals at the Port of Long Beach are also closed.

The union says that its main issue is what it claims is the outsourcing of its jobs, which are being lost through attrition, retirements, illnesses or other reasons.

The shipping lines and terminal operators say the union's outsourcing claims are bogus and say they have offered "absolute job security."

The employers have repeatedly said the union members are the highest-paid clerical workers in the U.S., having a total compensation package of $165,000 a year, including wages, benefits, pension contributions and paid vacation. That package would be worth $195,000 a year under management's new offer, the employers have said.

On Saturday, the union offered a rebuttal, saying that the employers' claims were misleading. Wages reached $40 to $41 an hour, for an annual pay level of $80,000 to $82,200 a year, not counting overtime, retirement or benefits. The union has asked for a 2.5% raise, said union spokesman Craig Merrilees. 

Since the strike started, nine ships have either diverted at sea or briefly anchored outside the ports before leaving to unload at another harbor.

But there were no new ship diversions on Saturday, said Capt. Dick McKenna, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which tracks vessel movements. McKenna said some ships inbound to Los Angeles and Long Beach appeared to have slowed down, lengthening their cruise times, in hopes that the strike might be resolved before they arrived.

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