LOS ANGELES (AP) — As cargo ships idled in the harbor or headed elsewhere, negotiators prepared Tuesday to return to the bargaining table with a federal mediator to try to end a costly, eight-day strike that has all but shut down the nation's busiest port complex.
About 44 percent of all cargo arriving in the U.S. by sea passes through the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, accounting for an estimated $1 billion a day in merchandise.
However, since hundreds of clerical workers went on strike, and thousands of dockworkers refused to cross their picket lines, most of that cargo has languished on docks, rail cars or ships.
"There's a billion-dollar impact to a work stoppage of this nature. It's an impact we cannot sustain," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said outside the harbor community center where negotiations have been held.
In the distance, giant cranes used to unload ships stood motionless.
Villaraigosa had emerged from an overnight negotiating session at the center to announce both sides had agreed to call in the mediator, who was expected to arrive by Tuesday evening.
The mayor said he was optimistic that an agreement could be reached within hours, explaining he had seen significant progress in the bargaining.
Representatives of both sides did not seem to share his enthusiasm.
"If it's close to any agreement, it's what kind of bagels we're going to bring in for breakfast," said Steve Getzug of the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Association, which is representing management.
Union spokesman Craig Merrilees did agree with Villaraigosa that significant progress had been made.
"But more remains to be done, particularly around the details of a plan to end the outsourcing of good jobs from the harbor area communities," he said.
Union leaders maintain that management wants to save money by outsourcing clerical jobs to places like China and Taiwan, where it can pay half the money for the same work. The result, they say, would be one more American sector taking an economic hit just to boost a giant company's profit margins.
Management maintains it won't outsource any jobs, but it wants more flexibility for hiring future employees so it doesn't have to pay people to fill slots that aren't needed. It contends the union wants "featherbedding" contract language requiring artificial staffing levels.
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