* Negotiations resume after marathon weekend talks
* Economic impact estimated at $1 billion a day
* Retailers diverting goods to other ports
By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES, Dec 3 Freighters with no place to
unload cargo lined up at anchorages off Los Angeles and Long
Beach for a seventh day on Monday as shippers and striking
clerks resumed talks to end a labor dispute that has idled most
of America's biggest container port complex.
With mounting economic losses estimated at several billion
dollars, the strike marks the largest cargo traffic disruption
at the twin Southern California harbor facilities since a 10-day
lockout of longshoremen at several West Coast ports in 2002.
Unlike the labor clash 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 ripple effect.
Major U.S. retailers, including Target and Home
Depot, said they have so far been largely unaffected by
the strike because the bulk of their Christmastime inventory has
already made it to store shelves.
But the National Retail Federation has asked President
Barack Obama to intervene, warning that a prolonged strike could
have a "devastating impact on the U.S. economy."
The brunt of the latest dispute at the ports of Los Angeles
and Long Beach, which together account for nearly 40 percent of
all U.S. cargo container imports, has been borne mostly by dock
workers and truckers in the region.
Terminal operators also worry about lost business as some
cargo is diverted to competing ports.
Striking port clerks remained at loggerheads on Monday with
shippers and terminal owners over the future of union
representation for clerical jobs after employees retire. The
International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 has so far
resisted calls for outside mediation.
The 800-member clerical workers unit of the ILWU local
walked off the job on 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.
SHIPPING TRAFFIC STALLED OR DIVERTED
Four other container terminals remained open, along with
facilities for handling shipments of automobiles, liquid fuels
and break-bulk cargo such as raw steel.
The overall economic impact of the strike has been estimated
to run at more than $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.
The strike has prompted at least 11 freighters to change
course and take their cargo to ports in Northern California,
Mexico and Panama, according to the non-profit Maritime Exchange
of Southern California, which tracks shipping in the region.
Another 11 ships were waiting at anchorages outside the Los
Angeles-Long Beach complex, unable to discharge their cargo,
said Dick McKenna, executive director of the Maritime Exchange.
"Shippers are a conservative bunch. If there is no
reliability at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, they'll
go someplace else," said Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the
Harbor Employers Association, representing shippers and terminal
operators in the labor talks.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa sent a letter to
negotiators for both sides on Monday urging them to bring in a
mediator to help resolve the dispute and to stay at the
bargaining table around the clock until an agreement is reached.
The Harbor Trucking Association, representing 8,000 truck
drivers, called on Monday for the Federal Maritime Commission to
bring greater pressure to bear for a settlement.
Marathon negotiations over the weekend, capped by another
exchange of proposals, failed to produce a breakthrough.
John Fageaux, head of the ILWU Local's clerical workers
union, criticized management's negotiators for calling a break
in the talks on Saturday night, saying, "We were prepared to
bargain all night."
Getzug, of the employers association, said they were "trying
to move this thing along as quickly as possible," and that the
companies would welcome a mediator.
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 employees holding them
retire. The employers insist on reserving the right to fill only
those jobs that need to be filled.
HOLIDAY-SEASON SHIPMENTS UNSCATHED
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.
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.
A number of retailers told Reuters their holiday-season
merchandise was already in the supply chain and that they were
using other ports around the country as needed to divert
Companies such as Lowe's and clothing retailer
Aeropostale said they have yet to feel a pinch from the
strike, though they were prepared to make adjustments as needed.
"We're asking ourselves why the striking union waited this
long to act, when it would have had more leverage with a big
threat to the holiday season," Caris & Co analyst Dorothy Lakner
said in a research note.
Shippers agreed that it was mostly a wait-and-see game for
now, though the season was in their favor.
The "peak transportation season for Christmas holiday has
almost been over and it is weak season for container shipment
now," Zhang Shouguo, chairman of the China Shipowners
Association, told Reuters.