Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach idled for 5th day by strike

Sun Dec 2, 2012 12:28am EST

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* Economic impact estimated at up to $1 billion a day

* Ports worry about losing business to competing harbors

* Nine container ships diverted since walkout began

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES, Dec 1 (Reuters) - A strike by clerical workers at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach idled most of the busiest U.S. cargo shipping complex for a fifth day on Saturday as container-laden vessels waited to be unloaded and marathon contract talks stretched into the night.

Some 10,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 were refusing to cross picket lines of some 500 striking clerical workers, effectively shutting down 10 of the two ports' combined 14 container terminals.

Four other container terminals have remained opened, along with facilities for handling break-bulk cargo such as raw steel and tanker traffic.

Still, the strike marks the largest disruption of cargo traffic through the two Southern California facilities since a 10-day lockout at West Coast ports in 2002.

Estimates of the overall economic impact of the strike have run as high as $1 billion a day, including lost wages of dock workers, truckers and others idled by the walkout, and the value of cargo rerouted by shippers.

Although the strike, which began on Tuesday, comes after the busy pre-holiday shipping season, the diversion of at least nine ships during the walkout has heightened growing concerns about Southern California losing business to other ports.

"There's a lot of concerns here locally that this is exactly the kind of thing that has the potential to drive business away," said Richard McKenna, executive director of the non-profit Maritime Exchange of Southern California, which tracks shipping in the region.

The Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest container harbor facility, and second-ranked Long Beach together handled more than $400 billion in goods arriving or leaving the West Coast by ship, L.A. port spokesman Phillip Sanfield said.

In addition, the two ports directly or indirectly support roughly 1.2 million Southern California jobs - workers involved in moving freight to or from the shipping complex, experts say. That does not count ancillary employment of people hired in restaurants, retail or other businesses that provide various services to those workers.

The clerks had been without a contract for more than two years when labor talks with management broke off on Monday. The chief stumbling block has been the future of union representation for jobs that are lost through retirement.

MARATHON BARGAINING SESSION

Negotiations resumed Friday night and extended into the early hours of Saturday morning.

The two sides returned to the bargaining table later Saturday morning and "we're going to continue as long as it takes," said John Fageaux, an ILWU Local 63 spokesman. "We'll go late into the night, I'm sure, late into the morning."

Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the Harbor Employers Association of dock companies, said management was concerned that a prolonged strike could undermine the ports' image for reliability and thus encourage shippers to go elsewhere in an increasingly competitive environment.

"So that's why the employers are looking to reach a settlement in good order," he said.

ILWU leaders are demanding that jobs traditionally performed by their members remain classified as union work and subject to the union's contract terms, even after individuals holding those jobs retire. They accuse the management of seeking to outsource union clerical jobs to overseas workers paid far less in wages and benefits.

The employers insist on reserving the right to fill only those jobs that need to be filled, and they accuse the union of seeking to featherbed work that is unnecessary, even after jobs are lost through retirement.

At least nine container ships that were due at Los Angeles or Long Beach since the walkout have taken their cargo to other harbors in Northern California, Mexico or Panama, the Maritime Exchange reported.

Five other container vessels were anchored just outside the Los Angeles-area port complex on Saturday waiting for their destination terminals to reopen, the exchange said.

The two ports together normally receive between six and seven container ships a day, and there is reason to worry that Southern California could ultimately lose some of that business, McKenna said.

The Panama Canal, for example, is being widened in a project slated for completion in 2015, which would allow some larger ships to avoid docking on the West Coast, he said. (Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Eric Beech)

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