* Mediation deal comes after all-night bargaining session
* Eighteen ships diverted to other ports since strike began
* Union spokesman says L.A. mayor helped narrow differences
By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES, Dec 4 Striking harbor clerks and
management at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach
agreed to federal mediation on Tuesday in a bid to end a
week-old labor clash that has idled most of America's biggest
cargo shipping complex.
The agreement to mediation, announced by Los Angeles Mayor
Antonio Villaraigosa, came after an all-night bargaining session
that a spokesman for the Harbor Employers Association,
representing shippers and terminal operators, said had left the
parties "still far apart."
But a union spokesman said the opposing sides had "made
incredible progress," and he credited the mayor with helping
contract negotiators narrow their differences.
The spokesman, Craig Merrilees of the International
Longshore and Warehouse Workers Local 63, said a new round of
talks would begin once the mediator arrives later in the day.
With mounting economic losses estimated at several billion
dollars, the strike marks the largest cargo traffic disruption
at the Southern California harbor facilities since a 10-day
lockout of longshoremen at several West Coast ports in 2002.
The latest strike has prompted at least 18 freighters to
change course and take their cargo to other ports in Northern
California, Mexico and Panama, according to the non-profit
Maritime Exchange of Southern California, which tracks shipping
in the region. Seven of those diversions occurred on Monday.
An additional 13 ships were waiting at anchorages outside
the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex on Tuesday, unable to unload
their cargo, said Dick McKenna, executive director of the
The two sides in the strike have deadlocked over future
staffing levels and union representation for jobs lost to
retirement and other attrition.
The 800-member clerical workers unit of the ILWU local
walked off the job last Tuesday, with some 10,000 longshoremen
and other union members refusing to cross picket lines, forcing
a shutdown at 10 of the twin ports' 14 container terminals.
Four other container terminals remained open, along with
facilities for handling shipments of automobiles, liquid fuels
and break-bulk cargo such as raw steel.
Unlike the labor clash at ports a decade ago, which took
place in the fall, the latest dispute is unfolding after the
busy pre-holiday shipping season, limiting the scope of its
A number of major U.S. retailers said they have so far been
largely unaffected by the strike because most of their
Christmastime inventory has already made it to store shelves.
OBAMA 'MONITORING' STRIKE
But the National Retail Federation asked President Barack
Obama last week to intervene, warning that a prolonged strike
could have a "devastating impact on the U.S. economy."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday that Obama
was "monitoring the situation" and had urged the opposing sides
to remain at the bargaining table.
ILWU leaders say they are demanding that jobs traditionally
performed by their members remain classified as union work and
subject to the union's contract terms, even after employees
holding them retire. They accuse management of seeking to
outsource jobs to workers elsewhere for less pay.
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 set staffing at artificially high levels.
Harbor employers spokesman Steve Getzug said the two sides
agreed to mediation after a marathon bargaining session that ran
from Monday evening until nearly 8 a.m. on Tuesday.
Getzug said Villaraigosa met on Monday night with the two
sides together and separately, and was in the room when the
employers presented their most recent proposal, but that after
the all-night session, "we're still far apart."
"It's always been in the employers' interest to find a way
forward in these negotiations because the union continues to
refuse to meet us halfway on our core staffing issues," he said.
Union spokesman Merrilees gave a more upbeat assessment,
saying, "The mayor helped close the gap, and hopefully the
resolution can be reached."
"The fact is a few days ago it was hard to even talk about
outsourcing problems with the company," he told Reuters. "We're
now talking about nitty-gritty details of a solution to ensure
those jobs stay here in the community and don't keep
disappearing to other states."
The most immediate casualties of the strike so far have been
tens of thousands of longshoremen, truckers, warehouse workers
and others left idle in the commercial transportation sector of
Southern California, a region struggling to recover from a
prolonged economic slump.
The overall economic impact has been estimated at more than
$1 billion a day, including lost wages and the value of cargo
rerouted away from the two ports, which together accounted for
nearly 40 percent of all U.S. cargo container imports last year.
Terminal operators worry about permanently losing business
as some cargo is diverted to competing ports.
The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach together handled
more than $400 billion in goods arriving or leaving the West
Coast by ship last year. Experts say the ports directly or
indirectly support some 1.2 million Southern California jobs -
workers involved in moving freight to or from the shipping