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Strike fails to shut down L.A., L.B. ports

July 1, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
A handful of clerical workers hit the picket lines on Thursday, but things have not gone the union's way. The strike failed to shut down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The contract, covering 900 clerical workers, expired at midnight. The clerks are the workers who process bookings for the export of cargo and other transport documents.

The big concern was how the strike would impact operations, with 40 percent of all cargo traffic coming in and out of the U.S. passes through the twin ports.

However, there were very few disruptions, in part because an arbitrator ruled that dockworkers cannot honor the picket lines. Longshoremen historically have not crossed picket lines, but an arbitrator ruled that the clerical strike is improper, and longshoremen were told they have to cross the picket lines.

Los Angeles port spokesman Phillip Sanfield says only about 30 people are picketing at terminals Thursday morning and they haven't caused any disruptions.

The strike comes after weeks of stalled negotiations.

The Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Association, which represents 14 shippers and terminal operators, rejected the union's latest proposal, which called for a wage increase of 21 percent over three years.

The shippers offered a counterproposal that included a 10 percent increase in monthly pension payments and protection from layoffs.

The union said it is worried about job security. The shippers want to use new computer programs giving customers access to booking information, and workers fear their jobs will be outsourced. The union wants language in their new agreement to prevent employers from outsourcing jobs to foreign countries.

"We're very disappointed," said John Fageaux, president of Local 63 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Marine Clerks Association Local 63 Office Clerical Unit.

Stephen Berry, who represents the 14 shipping companies trying to negotiate a new contract, said the union was being unrealistic in its demands, especially considering the economic downturn.

"These are the highest paid clerical workers in America" Berry said. "Their wage and benefit package is about $175,000 a year. They have paid time off of about 23 holidays a year, about 13 sick days a year and about four weeks of vacation a year."

But the union said it wasn't an issue of money.

"We have always acknowledged we have very good jobs. We have great benefits. We're proud of that," Fageaux said. "We haven't given them a wage proposal because that's not an important issue for us right now. What's important is the job security."

"We're here to protect our jobs, plain and simple," said striking worker Mike Whitlock. Whitlock is a 10-year employee at the West Basin Container Terminal in San Pedro. He fears the critical paperwork he does to keep shipments moving in and out of the port will be outsourced, and his job will become obsolete.

"The company seems to want to outsource a lot of our work, and we're here to protect it, keep it in the harbor, keep it local," said Whitlock.

"These employees have health benefits that would be the envy of every American," said Berry. "While most employers are cutting back right now, we've offered to maintain those benefits. We've not laid off an employee in the last three years during the term of this contract. We've preserved jobs, we've preserved job security. We've kept jobs here in the harbor and we've proposed to do that now."

"We're fortunate right now, we understand that, we want to keep it that way. We want to keep it that way for ourselves and future generations," said Whitlock.

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