LA ports reopen after crippling strikes

2012-12-06 09:04
Trucks wait to be loaded at the Port of Los Angeles. (Nick Ut, AP)

Trucks wait to be loaded at the Port of Los Angeles. (Nick Ut, AP)

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Los Angeles - Port clerks in Los Angeles returned to work jubilant in the knowledge that an eight-day strike that paralysed America's busiest shipping complex had won them - at least for now - guarantees that their jobs won't be outsourced to China, Arizona or other distant places.

Gates reopened on Wednesday at the ports and thousands of workers got busy unloading everything from cars to clothing, and television sets to computers from ships that had been idling in the ocean. Goods were placed on trains and trucks, to be delivered across America.

The 600 clerical workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union won only modest increases in wage and pension benefits over the life of a new four-year contract.

But more importantly, union spokesperson Craig Merrilees said on Wednesday, they extracted promises from management that, as workers retire or leave the ports during the next four years, no more than 14 jobs will be outsourced. Companies also must continue to fill vacant positions when workers are absent for vacations or other reasons.

"The key issue in this whole strike was the outsourcing of good jobs, and they won protections against outsourcing abuses," Merrilees said.

He acknowledged that the issue would likely be front and centre in negotiations when the new contract expires in 2016.

Computerisation


Shippers denied outsourcing jobs, but strikers insisted they had proof.

Trinnie Thompson, a union shop steward, said workers have seen invoices and e-mails showing some of their responsibilities being usurped by people in offices in Costa Rica, Shanghai, Colorado and Arizona.

"They take a job here in California where the average salary is $65 000 and are paying only $30 000 in a state like Arizona," she said.

The clerks handle such tasks as filing invoices and billing notices, arranging dock visits by customs inspectors, and ensuring that cargo moves off the dock quickly and gets where it's supposed to go.

The increasing computerisation of such tasks, which allows them to be performed in cities far from the ocean, makes the clerks especially vulnerable, say labour experts.

Moving such jobs overseas or to states that pay less, and where unionisation is not as strong, is something that has been a trend in the United States for decades, he said, giving as an example large company customer call centres that have been relocated to India.

11 weeks time off

The clerks make average salaries of $41 an hour, or about $87 000 a year. With overtime and generous benefits, they receive average annual compensation of $165 000 that will rise to about $195 000 if the proposed contract is ratified.

They also receive pensions and 11 weeks of time off. Their health insurance is fully paid and includes zero doctor co-payments, giving them among the best salary and benefits packages of any American blue-collar workers.

During negotiations, shippers fought vigorously against the job guarantees, maintaining that would force them to keep people on the payroll that weren't needed.

Ultimately, they compromised to end the devastating strike that shut down 10 of the 14 terminals at the ports and cost the region billions of dollars.

"At the end of the day, it was important to reach compromise to get people back to work, and we agree the deal will extend growth at the ports," said Steve Getzug, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Association, which represented the shipping companies.

During the walkout, officials estimated roughly $760m worth of cargo a day failed to move through the ports. Twenty ships headed to other ports in California and Mexico, while some simply didn't sail from their home ports. Still others idled at sea.

$4 000 lump sum


Clerical workers walked out on 27 November after working without a contract for 30 months.

Although the strikers numbered only about 450, thousands of dockworkers represented by a sister union refused to cross the picket lines, stalling work at the complex that handles 44% of all container traffic that arrives in the US by sea.

The new contract calls for a $1 an hour raise immediately and another $1 an hour bump next year, with raises in the contract's third and fourth years still to be determined. Employees will also receive $4 000 lump sum payments for the 30 months they worked without a contract.

Their pension benefits will increase slightly, and their vacation and health benefits will remain unchanged.

- SAPA
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