A walkout of union workers that began at the Port of Los Angeles' biggest and busiest cargo terminal Tuesday was spreading to more terminals there and to the neighboring Port of Long Beach, according to port officials.
The expanding walkout had the potential to broadly shut down operations at the two ports, which together are the seventh busiest commercial harbor in the world.
The two ports handle more than 40% of the nation's ocean-shipped imports from Asia. They also make up the busiest gateway for U.S. exports headed for sale overseas.
The walkout involves a long-simmering labor dispute that pits a small union of clerical workers against some of the world's largest ocean-shipping lines and cargo-terminal operators.
On Tuesday, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63's Office Clerical Unit had set up set up a picket line outside the APM Terminal at the Port of Los Angeles. The terminal and surrounding facility is also known as Pier 400.
The terminal's cargo operations were shut down Tuesday when the International Longshore and Warehouse Union members who load and unload ships at the port decided to honor the picket lines.
On Tuesday night, an arbitrator ruled against the union, declaring the picket line invalid because the union was allegedly not bargaining in good faith. The arbitrator ruled that union workers should return to work, but they apparently refused.
On Wednesday, the issue went before a higher-ranking arbitrator, but the APM Terminal remained closed and workers refused to return to their posts.
By early afternoon, the walkout had spread to other terminals, but there was no word on whether the arbitrator had ruled in favor of the union, and was allowing the strike, or in favor of management, and ordering union members to retun to work.
The 800-member Office Clerical Unit is affiliated with the ILWU, the union that handles cargo for every West Coast seaport, but it negotiates its labor contracts separately.
The clerical workers handle much of the paperwork involved in the loading and unloading of vessels.
Negotiations on a new contract began months before the old agreement expired June 30, 2010.
Union officials said their major grievance was the fear that management is trying to outsource jobs to nonunion labor.
“We’ve been meeting with the companies for more than two years, but they’re still concealing their outsourcing -- even when they’ve been caught red-handed,” said John Fageaux, president of the Local 63 Office Clerical Unit.
The management group said in a statement that it has offered the union "absolute job security" and what it called generous increases in wages and pension benefits.
The statement also accused the union of “'featherbedding,' the practice of requiring employers to call in temporary employees and hire new permanent employees even when there is no work to perform."
Also on Wednesday, Rep Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro) issued a statement saying that she was backing the port workers.
"I stand in solidarity with the hardworking clerical workers, most of whom are women, of the ILWU Local 63’s Office Clerical Unit, who are striking today to prevent their jobs from being sent overseas," Hahn said in the statement. "These workers have been bargaining in good faith for over two years, and I urge a fair resolution that keeps these good-paying jobs" at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.