Striking Port Workers Head Back to Work in Los Angeles, Long Beach

It ends a grueling battle between both sides that threatened to damage the fragile U.S. economy.
by , | December 5, 2012
 

Clerical workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach will return to work Wednesday, ending a strike that crippled America's busiest shipping hub for more than a week.

Leaders of the 800-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit agreed to a tentative deal after marathon negotiations that ended late Tuesday. The deal will not become final until it is ratified by the full union membership.

It ends a grueling battle between both sides that threatened to damage the fragile U.S. economy. Since the strike began, 20 ships diverted to rival ports in Oakland, Ensenada and Panama, while other freighters docked offshore waiting for a resolution.

"This was at a critical juncture," said Jack O'Connell, an international trade economist. "The national economy is still trying to get on its feet and this strike would have been decidedly unhelpful. There are enough head winds out there already."

The deal came after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called in two federal mediators Tuesday morning to try and break the impasse. That pushed the unions into a quicker deal, fearing a loss of influence and negotiating power once the mediators took over.

For Villaraigosa, a former union leader before going into politics, the tentative agreement was seen as a victory. "Mission accomplished. This has been a long eight days, but it's a great day for everybody now that a deal has been reached," Villaraigosa said in announcing a deal.

The strike began Nov. 27 as the clerical workers' union voiced frustration about shipping line employers outsourcing jobs, an accusation the Harbor Employers Assn. has denied.

Though the union is small, it was backed by the 10,000 regional members of the ILWU, which honored the picket line and refused to work. By the end, the strike shut down 10 of the 14 cargo container terminals at the nation's busiest seaport complex.

The port employers had been pushing for mediation since last week. Clerical workers agreed only after Villaraigosa intervened. Both union and harbor employers spent most of Tuesday huddled inside a community center near the port.

The mediators joined Villaraigosa there at about 8:30 p.m. as negotiators for the union were voting behind closed doors.

"When unions are weak, they badly want mediators, and when they are strong, they sometimes don't," said Nelson Lichtenstein, who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy at UC Santa Barbara. "This was a sign that the union felt it was dealing from a position of strength."

The dispute wasn't about wages or benefits. It centered on the claim by the union that employers have steadily outsourced jobs through attrition.

The union says the employers have transferred work from higher-paid union members to lower-paid employees in other states and countries.

"Tonight is the end of a very long journey," said Steve Berry, lead negotiator for the Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbor Employers Assn.

Berry said there will be "no outsourcing under this contract." Berry said the package included unspecified wage and pension increases. He also said there was added job security to the deal, that included a "no layoff" clause that would go into effect once ratified.

The contract will last for six years, and is retroactive to June 30, 2010. It will be set to expire on June 30, 2016. Few other details of the agreement were revealed by either side or the mayor.

However, during the last few days, salary has been one major bargaining point.

The workers don't have ordinary clerk and secretarial jobs. They are logistics experts who process a massive flow of information on the content of ships' cargo containers and their destinations. The clerical workers, among the highest-paid in the country, are responsible for booking cargo, filing customs documentation, and monitoring and tracking cargo movements.

According to union officials and the Harbor Employers Assn., the average hourly rate for clerical workers is $40.50 an hour -- which amounts to about $84,000 a year. In comparison, the median annual wage for cargo and freight agents was $37,150 in May 2010, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As talks dragged on, employers offered to raise the union workers' total compensation package. The employers had said total compensation currently averages $165,000, but that amount includes healthcare, pension contributions, time off and other benefits in addition to salary.

One of the latest proposals made just before Tuesday's vote would have raised that average to $195,000 and include a $1-an-hour increase in pay each year for the next two years.

The union, however, pushed for a contract that would prevent employers from outsourcing jobs in the future, said Craig Merrilees, a spokesman for the clerical workers' union.

(c)2012 the Los Angeles Times

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