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Port strike was part of bigger fight

"For the unions, it was an existential crisis" that focused on saving future jobs more than on boosting salaries.

December 05, 2012|By Walter Hamilton and Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times
  • Trucks line up as work resumes at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach after clerical union workers ended their strike.
Trucks line up as work resumes at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach after… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

The eight-day strike that crippled two of the world's busiest ports reflected a clash that is playing out across the global shipping industry, as ports and their unionized workforces gird for an era of briskly expanding foreign trade.

In many ways, the strike that shut down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach paralleled the generational skirmishes that have ripped through factory shops and automobile assembly floors.

Cargo companies and ports want to cut costs and automate operations to compete with aggressive rivals in Canada and South America. That is pitting them against unions, which are struggling to preserve high-paying jobs for their middle-class members.

"For the unions, it was an existential crisis," said Jock O'Connell, an international trade economist. "For the employers it was just business."

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The port strike was resolved late Tuesday amid pressure from political and business leaders who feared the economic fallout of a lengthy work stoppage in the holiday season.

In a sign of the stakes involved, the strike did not revolve around salaries or job security for current workers. Rather, the dispute centered on the contention by the 800-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit that employers were whittling down its membership by replacing retiring workers with nonunion personnel in other states and countries.

That rankled union members who see themselves as a bulwark preserving middle-class jobs for future generations.

"These are jobs for their kids and their kids' kids," said Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino, who lives in San Pedro. "These are men and women who live in the Harbor Area, who buy homes in the Harbor area, who shop in the Harbor area, and for us locally these jobs have a tremendous economic impact."

The settlement came late Tuesday after the clerical union, fearing the potential loss of negotiating leverage, agreed to a partial concession on future workforce levels, according to people involved in the talks.

The union agreed to allow employers to eliminate 14 jobs over the next 3 1/2 years through attrition, stepping back from a long-held demand that every retiring worker be replaced by a new union employee. The employers had sought to eliminate a far larger number of positions.

The union rushed to reach an accord before the arrival of federal negotiators who were flying across the country to join the talks, the people said. The union, which had the upper hand through most of the eight-day work stoppage, worried that the mediators called in by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa would pressure the group to cut a less favorable deal.

"It was important that we get this finished," said one union member involved in the talks. "It went right up until five minutes before the press conference. We just did not want to deal with the mediators."

The strike shut down 10 of the 14 cargo container terminals at the nation's busiest seaport complex.

The two ports handled 14 million cargo containers last year, just shy of the combined total at the next five biggest ports.

The Southland ports handled 39.5% of the total value of all container imports entering the U.S. last year, according to O'Connell. The port moves about $1 billion a day in cargo, he said.

The two ports are directly responsible for an estimated 595,000 jobs in Southern California.

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

The strike has crippled the ports because of support from the far larger ILWU dockworkers union, whose members honored the picket line.

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

Altogether, 19 ships bound for the L.A. or Long Beach ports were diverted elsewhere, including nine to Oakland, one to Mazatlan, Mexico, and one to Panama.

The employers had repeatedly said the union members are the highest-paid clerical workers in the U.S.

Wages have been $40 to $41 an hour, or $80,000 to $82,200 a year, not counting overtime, retirement or benefits, said union spokesman Craig Merrilees.

The contract calls for a $1-an-hour increase in each of the next two years. Workers also will receive retroactive payments averaging about $4,000 apiece dating back to the expiration of the previous contract.

Times staff writers David Zahniser and Ricardo Lopez contributed to this report.

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