Port strike could be prelude for dockworker talks

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 6, 2012 at 3:12 am •  Published: December 6, 2012

LOS ANGELES (AP) — The end of one labor crisis at the nation's busiest port complex could be a prelude to another.

The resolution of an eight-day walk-off by clerical workers at the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors that stalled billions of dollars of cargo and left container ships stranded off the California coast points to the stakes for upcoming contract talks with dockworkers at western U.S. shipping terminals.

The clerical workers represent a sliver of the membership of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, whose 24,000 dockworkers handle everything from car parts to computers at ports in Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii. The strikers numbered only about 450, but thousands of dockworkers refused to cross the picket lines and halted work at the sister ports that handle 44 percent of all container traffic that arrives in the U.S. by sea.

"There is a linkage between the two," said Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. The walkout in Southern California "increased the possibility, the probability, of a strike" when the dockworker contract is negotiated in 2014.

Clerical workers walked out Nov. 27 after working without a contract for 30 months.

The strike at the Los Angeles area ports came at a time of widespread labor strife around the nation, with public- and private-sector workers facing pressure on wages, benefits and job security as employers look to curb costs. Earlier this year in Oregon, a federal judge ordered longshoremen to end an illegal slowdown that disrupted shipping at the Port of Portland, and dockworkers on the East Coast have fought this year overtime rules and royalty payments to longshoremen.

But take-home pay was not a central issue with the well-paid clerical workers; the union was worried about jobs literally vanishing — outsourced to China, Arizona or elsewhere.

"It's not so much about the money, it's not so much about the hours, it's about watching out for efforts by employers to undermine the future viability of the union," said international trade economist Jock O'Connell.

"For the unions, this was an existential crisis. For the employers, it was business," O'Connell said.

Similar issues are likely to color the dockworkers' talks, as workers see their jobs potentially threatened by automation and competition for shippers after the Panama Canal expansion is completed.

"The union knows this: The industry is ready to go to Mexico or Canada," said Port of Long Beach spokesman Art Wong. In 2014, "hopefully they won't repeat what we've seen here" with the clerical workers.

After the eight-day strike — which stranded $760 million worth of cargo a day and sent some 20 ships to other ports in California and Mexico — "both sides will see how much damage there can be if one side walked out or one side locks out," Wong said.

California has a long history involving dock labor — a strike in the 1930s led to the unionization of ports across the West. The western dockworkers reached their last deal with shipping companies and terminal operators in 2008, when both sides were worried that a strike or lockout could further damage the U.S. economy. A 10-day lockout in 2002 caused an estimated $15 billion in economic losses.

With anxiety over a dwindling middle class, and with unions emboldened by the re-election of President Barack Obama, "there is an increasing amount of pushback now," O'Connell said.

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