Since the strike began, a number of cargo ships have sat anchored outside… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Standing with a picket sign in hand, clerical worker Manny Garcia gestured his thanks to motorists honking in support as they drove past a Port of Los Angeles cargo terminal.
Garcia has manned the picket lines at the L.A. and Long Beach ports in shifts since last week, when the 800-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit went on strike.
The issue pitting the clerical workers union against their shipping line employers is concern over outsourcing jobs, a charge the Harbor Employers Assn. has denied.
"We'd like to be working" rather than on strike, Garcia said Tuesday. "But we're trying to get a fair agreement."
A solution may come soon.
On Tuesday, after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa intervened in the negotiations, the clerical workers union relented and agreed to mediation — a decision the employers had pushed for since last week.
"We've got to get a deal and get a deal as soon as possible," Villaraigosa told reporters after working with both sides Monday night and well into the morning Tuesday following his return from a South American trade mission.
The workers have been striking since Nov. 27 against the 14-member group of shipping lines and terminal owners. Though small, their strike has been magnified as 10,000 regional members of the ILWU honor the picket lines.
The dispute isn't about wages or benefits. It centers on the charge by the union that employers have steadily outsourced jobs through attrition. The union says the employers have transferred work from higher-paid union members to lower-paid employees in other states and countries.
Their employers dispute that contention, saying they've offered the workers full job security. Their proposal also includes wage and pension increases.
The workers don't have ordinary clerk and secretarial jobs. They are logistics experts who process a massive flow of information on the content of ships' cargo containers and their destinations.
The clerical workers, among the highest-paid in the country, are responsible for booking cargo, filing customs documentation, and monitoring and tracking cargo movements.
For example, any hazardous cargo, such as chemicals, that arrives or leaves through the ports requires appropriate documentation. The clerical workers ensure that containers flagged by customs or the U.S. Department of Agriculture are held for inspection and cleared before they exit the ports.
According to union officials and the Harbor Employers Assn., the average hourly rate for clerical workers is $40.50 per hour — which amounts to about $84,000 a year. In comparison, the median annual wage for cargo and freight agents was $37,150 in May 2010, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
As talks have dragged on, employers have offered to raise the union workers' total compensation package. The employers say total compensation currently averages $165,000, but that amount includes healthcare, pension contributions, time off and other benefits in addition to salary.
The latest proposal would raise that average to $195,000, and include a $1-an-hour increase in pay each year for the next two years.
The union, however, is pushing for a contract that will prevent employers from outsourcing jobs in the future, said Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the clerical workers union.
Both sides expect that two mediators — high-profile negotiators with experience in past labor disputes — will speed along negotiations.
Director George H. Cohen and Deputy Director Scot L. Beckenbaugh of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service were expected to meet with both sides beginning Tuesday evening. Between them, they have mediated labor disputes involving the National Hockey League, Major League Soccer and grocery chains.
At his news conference Tuesday, Villaraigosa said it was clear to him the rift between the two sides was too large to be resolved without an experienced mediator guiding the talks.
"There's a lot at stake here," Villaraigosa said, adding that the talks needed a greater "sense of urgency."
Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the Harbor Employers Assn., said the mediators' involvement would be helpful, "but what this doesn't do is get the clerks to drop their picket."
Union officials said they had no plans to stop picketing during negotiations.
The strike has shut down 10 of the 14 cargo container terminals at the nation's busiest seaport complex. Since the strike began, 20 ships have been diverted to other ports, including Oakland and Ensenada. Other cargo ships have sat anchored outside the L.A. and Long Beach ports, waiting for a resolution to the labor dispute.
Garcia, for his part, said he feels the strike is a way to stand up to large corporations to protect well-paying jobs in the community.
"We want to see this resolved," said Garcia, who retired more than a decade ago but still works as a temporary employee. "And we don't want an agreement to be rammed down someone's throat. After all, we have to work with these people later."
Times staff writers Stuart Pfeifer and Scott Wilson contributed to this report.