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California Dock Strike Widens, Slows Imports From Asia

Union workers strike at the Port of Los Angeles on Nov. 28, 2012.
Nick Ut
Union workers strike at the Port of Los Angeles on Nov. 28, 2012.

A group of unionized clerical workers has effectively shut down much of the operations at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The clerical workers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, walked off the job on Wednesday, saying they feared Port officials were outsourcing their jobs.

Their clout grew dramatically yesterday when unionized longshoremen in both cities agreed to honor their picket lines.

The Port of Los Angeles says seven terminals that receive huge container ships are off line. Six terminals are closed in Long Beach. The Los Angeles Times reports the two ports unload 40% of the U.S. goods imported from Asia.

Port authorities say they haven't outsourced any positions; they're accusing the union of 'featherbedding', or trying to get positions for people when the jobs are not needed. Stephen Berry, who's negotiating for the ports, also told the Times the clerical workers have been offered a job package that includes excellent job security, a raise to $195,000 per year, a huge pension increase and lengthy vacation time.

The union says the wage offer is generous but that's not what's at stake: they say they've discovered evidence the ports moved at least 51 jobs to Dallas and Costa Rica. In a statement, they say if this practice continues the area will lose the "best-paying blue-collar jobs that would be impossible to replace, especially for women." The union says there are 800 clerical workers currently employed in the Harbor area.

Both sides returned to contract talks last night, says the Long Beach Press-Telegram. They've been negotiating since June, 2010. But as long as the clerical workers are off the job and the stevedores observe their pickets, few goods will be unloaded. The Press-Telegram says some ships re-routed to ports in Mexico, Alaska and northern California, while six ships are waiting, anchored off the coast of Los Angeles.

But the slowdown in imports has the business community worried. The National Retail Federation has already mailed a letter to President Obama, urging him to step in. CEO Matthew Shay wrote that a similar port lockout in 2002 in the same area lasted for 10 days, and cost an estimated $1 billion dollars each day: "An extended strike (in Los Angeles and Long Beach) this time could have a greater impact considering the fragile state of the U.S. economy."

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Korva Coleman is a newscaster for NPR.

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