As a clerical workers' strike entered its third day Thursday, cargo ships were stacking up at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and the employers' association was bemoaning a spreading economic impact.
The nation's busiest port complex has been nearly shutdown by the strike, begun by a small group of workers from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63's Office Clerical Unit who allege jobs have been shipped out of state and overseas, a contention denied by shippers.
Dockworkers who are in the same union have refused to cross the clerical workers' picket lines, which have formed at seven of eight LA terminals and at least three of six Long Beach terminals, according to port officials.
About 70 clerical workers from the approximately 800-member unit were picketing on Thursday morning.
On Thursday afternoon, City News Service reported that "a source close to the talks" said clerical workers and their employers planned to return to negotiations later that evening.
Earlier Thursday, at least 18 ships docked inside the two neighboring harbors -- which together handle 40 percent of U.S. import trade -- were not being serviced.
"Basically, we're not moving cargo in and out here," said Phillip Sanfield, a spokesman for the Port of Los Angeles.
In a statement released Thursday afternoon, Port of LA Executive Director Geraldine Knatz urged the two sides to return to negotiations.
"We are starting to see ships divert to other ports, including to Mexico," Knatz said. "In today’s shipping environment, we can’t afford to lose cargo or our competitive advantage."
The exact economic impact of the near shutdown isn't clear, but November is generally a slower time for the ports and most holiday goods have already arrived.
In 2002, a bitter 10-day lockout at a number of West Coast ports caused an estimated $15 billion in losses.
In a statement released midday Thursday, the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employer Association said "the strike has already had a severe impact on the flow of cargo and on jobs in the harbor community."
The association, which represents the terminal operators at the ports, went on the offensive, saying it had offered to enter into mediation with the Office Clerical Unit but was met with "unreasonable demands" and now "uncompromising and disruptive tactics."
Members of the unit are the "highest paid clerical workers in America," with annual compensation in the $165,000 range, the employer association said. A spokeswoman for the association clarified that workers make an average of $40 to $41 per hour, or about $83,000 per year in salary, with the remaining compensation covering benefits.
But the unit's leaders have said the strike is not about salary or benefits.
"Everyone agrees these are good-paying jobs," ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees told the Daily Breeze. "The difference is here that the companies resent providing those good-paying jobs in the long run and have taken steps to steadily ship them elsewhere to the detriment of the local communities around the harbor."
In a statement Thursday morning, the ILWU said longshoremen have a contractual right to respect the clerical workers' picket lines.
"I'm proud of the sacrifice that is being made by the men and women of Locals 13, 63 and 94 as they stand in solidarity with OCU and against the outsourcing of the good jobs that this community needs. And, despite the employers’ propaganda to the contrary, the port is still moving cargo," said Ray Familathe, the ILWU’s international vice president for the mainland, in the statement.
The clerical workers have been in a contract dispute for 2 1/2 years with 14 shippers. Talks between the parties broke off Monday, and the strike followed. No new talks have been scheduled.
John Fageaux, president of ILWU Local 63's Office Clerical Unit, said he had requested late Wednesday that shippers return to negotiations, but that the employers association refused.
"We're prepared to strike as long as it takes," Fageaux said late Thursday morning.
An arbitrator had ruled Tuesday that the clerical workers' walkout was invalid, but the strike expanded Wednesday and was continuing Thursday.
The shippers contend the union wants contract language to allow "featherbedding" – meaning the employers must pay temporary employees and hire new permanent employees even when there is no work to perform.
Stephen Berry, lead negotiator for the Harbor Employer Association, planned to give a press conference in downtown LA on Thursday afternoon to discuss the strike.
On Wednesday, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa urged the two sides to seek an agreement.
"The City of Los Angeles needs both of you to get back to the bargaining table this week, to work with a mediator, and to hammer out a settlement before further harm is done to our local economy,” Villaraigosa wrote in a letter to the union and the Harbor Employer Association.
"It is only a matter of time until the damage to our local economy has major national implications. The time for you to act is now," Villaraigosa added.
Rep. Janice Hahn, a Democrat from San Pedro who represents the Port of LA area, said she stood with the clerical workers.
The National Retail Federation, meanwhile, called on President Barack Obama to step in to end the stalemate.
"A prolonged strike at the nation's largest ports would have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy,'' NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay wrote in a letter to Obama. "We call upon you to use all means necessary to get the two sides back to the negotiating table.''
City News Service contributed to this report.