POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 7, 2012
LOS ANGELES » The end of one labor crisis at the nation's busiest port complex could be a prelude to another.
Resolution of an eight-day walkout by clerical workers at 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 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 workers facing pressure on wages, benefits and job security as public and private 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 this year have fought 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 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 about 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.
The clerks returned to work Wednesday, jubilant that the strike that shut down 10 of the 14 terminals at the ports earned them guarantees, at least for now, that their jobs won't be shipped somewhere else where labor costs are cheaper. They extracted promises from management that as workers retire or leave the ports during the next four years, no more than 14 jobs will be outsourced, union officials said.