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L.A. and Long Beach ports spring back to life

The end of an 8-day strike by clerical workers at the L.A. and Long Beach ports eases concerns of those who rely on them for their livelihoods.

December 06, 2012|By Stuart Pfeifer and Ricardo Lopez, Los Angeles Times
  • Workers return Wednesday to the APM and California United terminals on Terminal Island at the Port of Los Angeles after the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit ended a strike by reaching a tentative agreement with employers over a new contract.
Workers return Wednesday to the APM and California United terminals on… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )

For eight long days, the usual lunch crowd was missing from Marcos Medina's restaurant.

The eatery, called Isaac's Cafe, is located just a few blocks from the Port of Los Angeles. The longshoremen and others who make their living working at the massive seaport weren't coming through the glass doors of the family-run business.

"I have to be honest — our business runs off of them," said Medina, 42.

But on Wednesday, the port sprang to life.

Medina was back hustling and taking food orders from a long line of customers at the tiny Mexican food joint his parents opened in 1977.

For most of the lunch hour, he barked out meal orders in Spanish to his kitchen staff, who whipped up burritos and tacos to feed hungry dockworkers and others.

Thousands went back to work Wednesday morning after a strike by the 800-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit ended when the union reached a tentative agreement with employers over a new contract. Details of the settlement haven't been released.

News that the stalemate had ended couldn't have been better received by workers and businesses in the harbor area. After all, their livelihoods depend on the freight traffic that moves through the port, even if they never touch a cargo container.

"I'm glad for everybody — the economy, all the workers out here," said Phil Mladinich, a 66-year-old longshoreman from Dana Point returning to work.

But first he stopped to get food.

Clutching a paper bag with a burrito from Medina's restaurant, he said he was glad to see the union and the Harbor Employers Assn. come to an agreement.

The strike by the clerical workers, whose main grievance was over the alleged outsourcing of jobs, had essentially shut down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach as longshoreman honored their picket lines. That crippled the region's vital goods-moving industry — and deprived businesses like Medina's of much-needed customers.

The impasse was broken late Tuesday night just as federal mediators landed in Los Angeles prepared to intervene and lead the talks between the two parties.

Within an hour of the announcement, calls were made to jump-start port operations, starting with the port pilots who guide vessels into dock, said Geraldine Knatz, Port of Los Angeles executive director.

"Everyone was anxious to get back to work," she said, "and everyone jumped on it."

By 7 a.m., just as the first shift of longshoremen was reporting to union halls to be dispatched to jobs, eight cargo vessels were already at berth, ready to be unloaded.

Port officials expect the docks to be especially busy this week as employees work through a backlog of cargo containers stacked in terminals or sitting on ships. At a longshoremen dispatch hall on Terminal Island, dozens of workers were waiting to get their ship assignments.

"This was the busiest day I've ever seen," said Brockie, a 38-year-old San Pedro longshoreman who declined to provide his last name because he was not authorized by the union to speak with a reporter.

He said many of his fellow dockworkers were worried about the strike lasting longer.

"A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck, and struggle with house payments and bills," he said.

Although the total economic effect of the strike wasn't clear, a big blow undoubtedly was dealt to the finances of workers who lost wages as the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were idled.

"Quite a bit of income was lost during the strike because truck drivers and crane operators weren't working," said Sung Won Sohn, an economist at Cal State Channel Islands in Camarillo.

That would have dented local consumer spending, Sohn said.

As the port comes back to life, "there will be a lot of overtime to make up for the lost time, so I expect some rebound based on that."

Retailers expressed relief Wednesday that their goods, which had sat unmoved on dockyards or stranded on cargo vessels, would begin to move.

"Hopefully the retailers and other affected industries will be able to quickly recover from the shutdown," said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the National Retail Federation.

The two ports handle about $1 billion of cargo a day. A small portion of the cargo was diverted to other West Coast harbors and Mexican ports during the strike.

Back at Isaac's Cafe, Medina said the end of the strike had swept away his fear that business would slow as badly as it did four years ago, when the economic downturn caused cargo traffic to plummet.

"My worry was that we would see what we saw back in 2008," Medina said as customers bit into burritos wrapped in aluminum and sipped out of canned soft drinks.

"If it wasn't for the port, for the longshoremen, we would be hurting," he said.

Times staff writer Ronald D. White contributed to this report.

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