7/18/07

ILWU strike threat sends ships to safer ports

Labor talks between harbor-area clerks and their employers are set to resume early today as the two sides push to avoid a waterfront strike. Negotiations broke off late Monday after an attorney bargaining for 14 shipping companies and marine terminals reported a family emergency. When talks ended, both groups indicated a new labor pact for more than 900 front-office clerks was near, but a few sticking points remained.

The labor uncertainty has caused some shippers to divert cargo to other West Coast ports as a precaution and is adding strain to importers who rely on the Long Beach-Los Angeles port complex.

"They don't like what's happening because of the uncertainty of it all," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. "It's causing a lot of headaches for small importers because some of their cargo is ending up in strange locations and they're stuck with delays and added costs bringing those goods back."

Kyser predicted a prolonged strike could lead retailers to seek other gateways for their waterborne cargo in the future.

"It's a very serious situation," Kyser said. "Long-term, it could be very harmful to Long Beach and Los Angeles."

Among the sticking points are job protections being sought by workers to prevent positions from outsourcing, and a PPO-style health care plan for new hires.

Employers have offered wage increases of 50 cents per hour annually for three years, a "no layoff" clause and a trust-ensured retirement plan.

In return, employers are seeking more flexibility in staffing levels. Current rules require companies to replace workers who retire, are out sick or on vacation.

"We want the flexibility to replace people when they're needed, but we don't want to have people on payroll sitting around if there's no work to do," said attorney and employer negotiator Steve Berry before leaving late Monday.

Currently, clerks earn a minimum of $37.50 per hour and receive competitive health and welfare packages, along with paid vacation and sick leave.

Workers, represented by Local 63 Office Clerical Unit of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, authorized their leaders to call a strike two days before the July 1 expiration of their previous 3-year contract.

Late last week, the union set a 12:01 a.m. Monday strike deadline, saying workers would walk off the job if a deal was not reached.

Despite the threat, the two sides have continued talking since the deadline, and Local 63 OCU President John Fageaux Jr. said progress was being made.

The smaller union is being supported by more than 7,000 ILWU longshoremen who work loading and unloading ships and who have vowed not to cross picket lines.

Other unions in the port resolving not to interfere with picket lines are the Teamsters and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

Teamsters drivers handle some cargo hauling, including for cruise ship terminals in Los Angeles, while the machinists union has 650 members servicing cargo cranes and other marine terminal yard equipment.

"We're prepared to support OCU all the way," said Kevin Kucera, an AIM representative in Wilmington. "These workers represent the backbone of America's middle class."

Economists estimate the lockout cost the national economy $1 billion per day.

Both sides plan to return to the bargaining table at 10 a.m. today.

(presstelegram.com)

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