December 6, 2012 in Business

L.A. ports reopen after crippling 8-day strike

John Rogers Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Trucks wait to be loaded at the Port of Los Angeles on Wednesday after settlement of a strike that crippled the nation’s busiest container port complex.
(Full-size photo)

LOS ANGELES – Port clerks returned to work Wednesday, jubilant in the knowledge that an eight-day strike that paralyzed the nation’s busiest shipping complex had won them – at least for now – guarantees that their jobs won’t be outsourced to China, Arizona or other places.

The 600 clerical workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union won only modest increases in wage and pension benefits over the life of a new four-year contract.

But more importantly, said union spokesman Craig Merrilees, 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. Companies also must continue to fill vacant positions when workers are absent for vacations or other reasons.

“The key issue in this whole strike was the outsourcing of good jobs, and they won protections against outsourcing abuses,” Merrilees said.

He acknowledged that the issue would likely be front and center in negotiations when the new contract expires in 2016.

Shippers denied outsourcing jobs, but strikers insisted they had proof.

Trinnie Thompson, a union shop steward, said workers have seen invoices and emails showing some of their responsibilities being usurped by people in offices in Costa Rica, Shanghai, Colorado and Arizona.

The clerks handle such tasks as filing invoices and billing notices, arranging dock visits by customs inspectors, and ensuring that cargo moves off the dock quickly and gets where it’s supposed to go.

The increasing computerization of such tasks, which allows them to be performed in cities far from the ocean, makes the clerks especially vulnerable, say labor experts.

“These are fairly complicated jobs, you can’t just hire anybody to do them, but nevertheless they can be done from other places,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said Wednesday.

“What’s remarkable about this is that the union struck, they shut down the ports and they won,” he said, adding it showed what the strong labor movement that still exists in the shipping industry is capable of accomplishing.

The clerks make average salaries of $41 an hour, or about $87,000 a year. They also receive pensions and several weeks of vacation a year. Their health insurance is fully paid and includes zero doctor co-pays, giving them among the best salary and benefits packages of any blue-collar workers.

Gates reopened at the ports and thousands of workers got busy unloading everything from cars to clothing, and television sets to computers from ships that had been idling in the ocean. Goods were placed on trains and trucks, to be delivered across the country.

“It’s going to take a few days, maybe a week or two to get back to normal,” said Long Beach port spokesman Art Wong.

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