A strike by about 500 unionized clerical workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach halted most work at the nation's busiest harbor complex Thursday, with calls for presidential intervention in what threatens to impact the economy.
The combined ports complex moves $1 billion daily in goods and 40 percent of the country's seaborne cargo, including petroleum products. Workers from across Southern California have port-related jobs that drive the regional economy, with 10,000 ILWU dockside workers at the L.A.-L.B. ports, economists say.
And the executive director of the Port of Los Angeles warned that a longer work stoppage posed risks for not just the harbor workforce but hundreds of thousands of other jobs directly or indirectly linked to the ports.
"We are starting to see ships divert to other ports, including to Mexico," announced Geraldine Knatz, executive director of the Port of L.A., in a 3 p.m. statement. "This dispute has impacted not only our Port work force but all stakeholders who ship goods through our complex and potentially the hundreds of thousands of jobs that are directly and indirectly related to port operations. In today’s shipping environment, we can’t afford to lose cargo or our competitive advantage.”
Several dozen longshore clerks, who have been without a contract since June 30, 2010, walked off the job Tuesday at the Port of L.A.'s busiest terminal. The strike grew dramatically Wednesday to all but one of the L.A. port's terminals and three of six terminals at the Port of Long Beach.
Thousands of longshoremen -- also represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union -- have honored the picket line, bringing container cargo movement to a stop. The strike is the largest work stoppage at the ports since 2002, when a lockout by shipping companies caused President George W. Bush to seek a court injunction to resolve the labor standoff.
The strike has raised fears of ripple effects throughout the economy. The ports combined move about 40 percent of the nation's seaborne cargo, an estimated $1 billion worth of goods per day. The Los Angeles Times reports that the union's picket lines had at least the tacit approval of the larger, 50,000-member ILWU of dockworkers, clerks and other workers who handle all of the cargo on the west coasts of the U.S. and Canada and in Hawaii.
John Fageaux, president of ILWU Local 63's Office Clerical Unit, said he requested late Wednesday that the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Association come back to the negotiating table.
"They refused by saying they were not prepared to make any movement from their current position," Fageaux said late Thursday morning. "We're prepared to strike as long as it takes."
The clerical workers union accuses the Harbor Employers Association, which represents 14 of the world's largest shipping companies, of using technology to outsource workers' jobs. John Berry, the lead negotiator for the employers, strongly disputed the claim.
"Not one OCU job has been sent overseas, or anywhere else," Berry said. On the contrary, Berry argued, the employers have guaranteed that no OCU workers will be laid off under a new contract and that they will be paid every week of the year.
The employers are also offering to self-impose fines every time a non-union employee performs union work, barring exceptions in the contract, Berry added.
The National Retail Federation called Thursday for President Barack Obama to step in to end the stalemate in contract negotiations. "A prolonged strike at the nation's largest ports would have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy," NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay wrote in a letter to Obama.
"We call upon you to use all means necessary to get the two sides back to the negotiating table." The 10-day lockout in 2002 led to significant retail supply chain disruptions, which took six months to recover from and cost the economy an estimated $1 billion a day, according to the Retail Federation.
"An extended strike ... this time could have a greater impact considering the fragile state of the U.S. economy," Shay wrote.
White House officials were not immediately available for comment. The strike has raised the concern of local political officials, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who issued statements Wednesday.
"The City of Los Angeles needs both of you to get back to the bargaining table this week, to work with a mediator, and to hammer out a settlement before further harm is done to our local economy," Villaraigosa said. "There is no time to waste."
From the Port of L.A.'s home page Thursday:
"Due to labor action, seven container terminals at the Port of Los Angeles are not in operation as of Thursday, Nov. 29. Those terminals include China Shipping (Berth 100), Yang Ming (Berths 121-131), Yusen (Berths 212-225), Evergreen (Berths 226-236), APL (Berths 302-305) , APM (Berths 401-404) and California United (Berths 405-406). One container terminal, TraPac, remains open.
The Port is urging the parties involved in the dispute to work diligently toward finding a mutually agreeable solution."
Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Los Angeles, issued a statement siding with the striking clerical workers. "I stand in solidarity with the hard-working 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. Berry said Wednesday that the Harbor Employers Association requested assistance from the National Mediation Board.
--City News Service and Nancy Wride contributed to this report.