By John Rogers
LOS ANGELES -- For the most part, the work of the people who file the invoices for the TV sets that arrive from China and the cars that come from Japan goes all but unnoticed as those products and countless others make their way across the United States.
Not this week, however, after about 400 of the 600 unionized shipping clerks who toil at the giant ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach walked off their jobs and quickly paralyzed the nation's busiest shipping complex.
As the strike entered its eighth day Tuesday, the key sticking point in negotiations, according to both sides, are differences over the filling of both temporary and permanent jobs in the future.
Union leaders maintain that management wants to save money by outsourcing workers' jobs to places like China and Taiwan, where it can pay workers half the money to do the same work by computer. The result, they say, would be one more American sector taking an economic hit just to boost a giant company's profit margins.
"It's important to us to keep those jobs here in the United States," said union spokesman Craig Merrilees. "We're fighting against corporate greed."
"Rather than having artificial staffing levels, we're saying, give us the ability to make decisions based on need, and we think that's a reasonable request," said Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the Harbor Employers Association.
He added that management has promised to guarantee current workers' their jobs until they retire or leave the ports for other jobs.
Although the strikers, who are represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, are few in number, their action received a big boost last week when 10,000 members of their sister union, which represents dockworkers, refused to cross their picket lines.
That quickly shut down 10 of the ports' 14 terminals.
As the strike moved into its second week, labor experts estimated it was costing the U.S. economy tens of millions of dollars a day, idling thousands of truckers who can't pick up cargo, disrupting rail traffic and, if it continues, will begin emptying warehouses across the nation.
"We estimate that the two ports handle about a billion dollars' worth of cargo a day," said Art Wong, spokesman for the Port of Long Beach. "Three-quarters of the port complex is shut down, meaning $760 billion a day worth of goods are just idled."
Those goods, he said, are either sitting on the docks or offshore in huge cargo ships waiting to be unloaded at a port complex that handles about 40 percent of the cargo coming into the United States.
Meanwhile, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and others are calling on both sides to reach an agreement.
"The city of Los Angeles needs both of you to get back to the bargaining table this week, to work with a mediator and to hammer out a settlement before further harm is done to our local economy," Villaraigosa wrote in a letter to both sides before they resumed negotiations Monday. He urged them to negotiate around the clock until an agreement is reached.
On Monday, the Harbor Trucking Association asked the Federal Maritime Commission to get involved, and the National Retail Federation called on President Barack Obama to do something.
"If there's no negotiating progress in the next day, I would assume there will be calls for the president to get involved and invoke the Taft-Hartley Act and get people back to work," Kristin Monaco, an economics professor at California State University, Long Beach, and an expert on port and trucking industry labor issues, said Monday.
As they continue to negotiate, both sides say wages, pensions, vacations and other benefits are not an issue.
The union says average clerical salaries are $41 an hour, or about $87,000 a year. When benefits are factored in, that raises annual compensation to $165,000, Getzug said.
He added that management has offered a new contract that would raise that amount to about $195,000 by 2016, along with providing 11 weeks of vacation.
"We know we're blessed," port clerk Trinnie Thompson said by phone as she walked the picket line outside one of the terminals Monday. "We're very thankful for our jobs. We just want to keep them."
Thompson, who has worked at the ports for 23 years, since she was 18, said clerks handle everything from filing invoices and bills, making sure that cargo moves off the dock quickly and gets where it is supposed to go, to coordinating dockside visits by customs inspectors.
Everything from food to fireworks, textiles to high-tech electronics, move through the ports and onto trucks and trains, headed to warehouses and distribution centers all over the country.
Although the clerks, who have worked without a contract for more than two years, must keep track of it all, it's a job that more and more can be done by computer. Workers say that leaves them vulnerable to outsourcing.
"We're not asking for more money, we're not asking for an increase in benefits," Thompson said. "We're just asking for security for our jobs. We want to protect our jobs and our community."
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