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Business calls for government intervention in California port strike

LOS ANGELES – As the clerical workers strike crippling the twin ports of Long Angeles and Long Beach enters its eighth day Tuesday with the union continuing to resist calls to take the dispute into mediation, there is growing business...

LOS ANGELES – As the clerical workers strike crippling the twin ports of Long Angeles and Long Beach enters its eighth day Tuesday with the union continuing to resist calls to take the dispute into mediation, there is growing business pressure to get Washington involved.

The National Retail Federation (NRF) and other US business groups sent letters to US president Barack Obama and leading members of Congress to intervene now to get the International Longshore and Warehouse Union strike settled.  The NRF said the strike is now at the national emergency stage, impacting industries far and wide.

“The shutdown is already having a significant negative economic impact on retailers trying to bring in merchandise for their final push for holiday sales and will soon have an impact on consumers. The work stoppage not only impacts retailers, but is also affecting their product vendors – many of which are small businesses – and other industries like manufacturers and agricultural exporters that rely on the ports.  ‘Urging’ both sides toward a solution is not the answer. The Obama Administration needs to show leadership and resolve to get the ports operational again and prevent any further economic damage,” the NRF said in a release.

The Harbor Trucking Association, which represents 8,000 truck drivers, called on Monday for the Federal Maritime Commission to bring greater pressure to bear for a settlement.

Meanwhile Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa sent a letter on Monday urging both sides to bring in a mediator to help them reach a solution.  

There were negotiations over the weekend but no breakthroughs. Union officials told the Reuters news agency that although they don’t rule out mediation, they don’t feel the negotiations are at the stage where a mediator is necessary. The employers association meanwhile said it would welcome a mediator.

Nine ships have been diverted from the seaport since picket lines first went up on November 27.  Eleven container vessels are at anchor Monday morning, unable to dock and unload.  

“The cargo continues to back up,” said Port of Los Angeles spokesperson Phillip Sanfield.

Clerical workers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, have been picketing seven of eight Los Angeles terminals and three of six Long Beach terminals even though an arbitrator ruled their walkout last Tuesday as invalid.  What has greatly escalated the situation is that dockworkers from the same union, who number more than 7,000,  are refusing to cross the picket lines, shutting down cargo handling operations at the facilities. The resulting slowdown has cost the busy complex about a billion dollars a day, port officials say.

The about 800 office clerical workers have been working without a contract since June 2010. They process shipping documents for the terminal operators and the shipping lines which call on them. A union spokesman told the Wall Street Journal the clerical workers fear their jobs are being outsourced to low cost countries in Central America and Asia. But the port employers association told the Wall Street Journal that was a “myth” and claimed it has “offered to guarantee no workers will be laid off, among other outsourcing protections.”

ILWU leaders want jobs traditionally performed by their members to remain as union work and subject to the union’s contract terms, even after individuals holding those positions retire. The employers, on the other hand, want the freedom to fill jobs that need to be filled, and accuse the union of trying to featherbed work that is unnecessary, even after jobs are lost through retirement.

Combined, the Port of Long Beach and the Port of Los Angeles move 40 percent of all containerized trade in the US. More than $300 billion worth of goods that flow through the two ports annually.

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