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Small union is causing big problems for ports

November 30, 2012|Ronald D. White, Los Angeles Times
  • A strike by about 800 clerical workers is disrupting the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and costing them an estimated $1 billion a day. Above, trucks line up Thursday to enter Pier J at the Port of Long Beach.
A strike by about 800 clerical workers is disrupting the ports of Los Angeles… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

The small band of strikers that has effectively shut down the nation's busiest shipping complex forced two huge cargo ships to head for other ports Thursday and kept at least three others away, hobbling an economic powerhouse in Southern California.

The disruption is costing an estimated $1 billion a day at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, on which some 600,000 truckers, dockworkers, trading companies and others depend for their livelihoods.

"The longer it goes, the more the impacts increase," said Paul Bingham, an economist with infrastructure consulting firm CDM Smith. "Retailers will have stock outages, lost sales for products not delivered. There will be shutdowns in factories, in manufacturing when they run out of parts."

Despite the union's size — about 800 members of a unit of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union — it has managed to flex big muscles. Unlike almost anywhere else in the nation, union loyalty is strong at the country's ports. Neither the longshoremen nor the truckers are crossing the tiny union's picket lines.

The strike started at the L.A. port's largest terminal Tuesday and spread Wednesday to 10 of the two ports' 14 cargo terminals. These resemble seaside parking lots where long metal containers are loaded and unloaded with the help of giant cranes.

The union contends that the dispute is over job security and the transfer of work from higher-paid union members to lower-paid employees in other countries. The 14-employer management group says that no jobs have been outsourced and that the union wants to continue a practice called "featherbedding," or bringing in temporary workers even when there is no work.

The two sides haven't met since negotiations broke down Monday, but they were scheduled to begin talking again Thursday night. The union has worked without a contract for 21/2 years.

The clerical workers are a vital link in the supply chain. They handle the immense flow of information that accompanies each cargo ship as well as every item in the freight. One shipload of shoes, toys and other products is enough to fill five warehouses.

Logistics clerk Trinie Thompson, 41, normally spends her days working with railroad lines and trucking companies to ensure that the right containers are sent along to their proper destinations. On Thursday, she was walking the picket lines at the docks.

"We will be setting up trains to Houston, trains to Dallas, to Chicago, to the Pacific Northwest," said Thompson, who has worked for 10 years for Eagle Marine Services terminal, which is affiliated with the giant APL shipping line.

"For a typical container ship, we will have to set up multiple trains. We might be sending 200 to 300 containers to Chicago alone, and there will be paperwork for all of them."

The strike comes at a time of simmering labor unrest at other U.S. ports, underscoring the unusual power labor holds in maritime trade.

On the East Coast and Gulf Coast, another group of shipping lines and terminal operators called the United States Maritime Alliance has repeatedly failed to reach agreement on a new labor contract with the International Longshoremen's Assn. A strike that might have involved dozens of ports was avoided only after both sides agreed to extend negotiations past the September end of their current contract.

A strike also was narrowly avoided at Portland, Ore., only a few days ago in a dispute between grain shippers and union workers.

Operations at Oakland International Airport and at the Port of Oakland, the third-largest port in the state behind Los Angeles and Long Beach, were affected by a brief strike this month.

Maritime unions "have successfully organized one of the most vital links in the supply chain, and it's a tradition they nurture with all of their younger workers," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a UC Santa Barbara history professor and workplace expert. "They have a very strong ideological sense of who they are, and for now they are strong."

In Los Angeles and Long Beach, the 800 clerical workers have been able to shut down most of the ports because the 10,000-member dockworkers union is honoring the picket lines. Work continues at only four cargo terminals, where the office clerical unit has no workers.

"Longshoremen stand up when other workers need our help," said Ray Ortiz Jr., a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's Coast Committee. "Sure, it's a sacrifice to give up a paycheck when you refuse to cross the picket line, but we believe it's in the long-term interest of the Los Angeles-Long Beach harbor area to retain these good local jobs."

Stephen Berry, lead negotiator for the shipping lines and cargo terminals, said the clerical workers have been offered a deal that includes "absolute job security," a raise that would take average annual pay to $195,000 from $165,000, 11 weeks' paid vacation and a generous pension increase.

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