Port strike appears on hold until Tuesday

After 24 hours of bargaining, talks between the union representing about 930 clerical workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach were broken off. They have plans to resume on Tuesday at 1 p.m., and the clerks have agreed not to strike before then, according to a union official. The union and employers have been negotiating terms of a new three-year contract, seeking to replace an existing contract that expired at midnight June 30, 2007. Negotiations have been occurring since early May, but the two sides have been divided over issues such as pay raises, health benefits, and technology. Under the expired contract, full-time port clerical workers earned about $37.50 an hour, or $78,000 a year, received a pension, healthcare benefits and 20 paid holidays a year.

In a last attempt to avoid a strike that could paralyze the nation's largest port complex, the union submitted its "last, best and final offer" to employers on Sunday, just before a midnight strike deadline. John Fageaux Jr., boss of the Office Clerical Unit of Local 63 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, said representatives of the companies "basically walked away from the table." The union's offer "wasn't officially rejected, but [company representatives] said they could not respond and wouldn't be available to meet again until Tuesday."

"I'm not optimistic at all about it," Fageaux said. "We've done all we can and the employers told us earlier they weren't going to budge from their earlier position."

The two sides were able to close the gap on salaries, but there are still "four or five open issues," including technology and the employers' desire to establish "tiered healthcare," under which new workers would get lower benefits.

Fageaux, unable to comment on the specifics of the latest union proposal, did say that "it addresses a great deal of the employers' needs and we've made a lot of concession in an effort to avoid a strike."

"I don't believe the employers are acknowledging that and they've taken the position that it's their way or the highway," said Fageaux.

Representatives of the Longshore union, which controls most jobs on the waterfront, said they would honor picket lines if clerks decide to go on strike.

A strike would effectively shut down the twin ports, through which more than 40 percent of all imported goods pass. Together, the ports handle around $275 billion worth of cargo a year.


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