The end of one labor crisis at the nation's busiest port complex could be a prelude to another.
The resolution of an eight-day walk-off by clerical workers at the Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors that stalled billions of dollars of cargo and left container ships stranded off the California coast points to the stakes for upcoming contract talks with dockworkers at western U.S. shipping terminals.
The clerical workers represent a sliver of the membership of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, whose 24,000 dockworkers handle everything from car parts to computers at ports in Washington, Oregon, California and Hawaii. The strikers numbered only about 450, but thousands of dockworkers refused to cross the picket lines and halted work at the sister ports that handle 44 percent of all container traffic that arrives in the U.S. by sea.
"There is a linkage between the two," said Gary Chaison, professor of labor relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. The walkout in Southern California "increased the possibility, the probability, of a strike" when the dockworker contract is negotiated in 2014.
Clerical workers walked out Nov. 27 after working without a contract for 30 months.
The strike at the Los Angeles area ports came at a time of widespread labor strife around the nation, with public- and private-sector workers facing pressure on wages, benefits and job security as employers look to curb costs. Earlier this year in Oregon, a federal judge ordered longshoremen to end an illegal slowdown that disrupted shipping at the Port of Portland, and dockworkers on the East Coast have fought this year overtime rules and royalty payments to longshoremen.
But take-home pay was not a central issue with the well-paid clerical workers; the union was worried about jobs literally vanishing — outsourced to China, Arizona or elsewhere.
"It's not so much about the money, it's not so much about the hours, it's about watching out for efforts by employers to undermine the future viability of the union," said international trade economist Jock O'Connell.
"For the unions, this was an existential crisis. For the employers, it was business," O'Connell said.
Similar issues are likely to color the dockworkers' talks, as workers see their jobs potentially threatened by automation and competition for shippers after the Panama Canal expansion is completed.
"The union knows this: The industry is ready to go to Mexico or Canada," said Port of Long Beach spokesman Art Wong. In 2014, "hopefully they won't repeat what we've seen here" with the clerical workers.
After the eight-day strike — which stranded $760 million worth of cargo a day and sent some 20 ships to other ports in California and Mexico — "both sides will see how much damage there can be if one side walked out or one side locks out," Wong said.
California has a long history involving dock labor — a strike in the 1930s led to the unionization of ports across the West. The western dockworkers reached their last deal with shipping companies and terminal operators in 2008, when both sides were worried that a strike or lockout could further damage the U.S. economy. A 10-day lockout in 2002 caused an estimated $15 billion in economic losses.
With anxiety over a dwindling middle class, and with unions emboldened by the re-election of President Barack Obama, "there is an increasing amount of pushback now," O'Connell said.
The clerks returned to work Wednesday, jubilant that the strike that shut down 10 of the 14 terminals at the ports earned them guarantees, at least for now, that their jobs won't be shipped somewhere else where labor costs are cheaper. 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, union officials said.
"The key issue in this whole strike was the outsourcing of good jobs, and they won protections against outsourcing abuses," said union spokesman Craig Merrilees.
Shippers denied outsourcing jobs, but strikers insisted they had proof. Trinnie Thompson, a union shop steward, said workers have seen invoices and emails showing some of their responsibilities being usurped by workers in Costa Rica, Shanghai, Colorado and Arizona.
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 computerization of such tasks, which allows them to be performed in cities far from the ocean, makes the clerks especially vulnerable, labor experts say.
The clerks make average salaries of $41 an hour, or about $87,000 a year. They also receive pensions and several weeks of vacation a year. Their health insurance is fully paid and includes zero doctor co-pays, giving them among the best salary and benefits packages of any blue-collar workers.
The deal, reached late Tuesday night, must be ratified by union membership.
Meanwhile, gates reopened at the ports and thousands of workers got busy unloading everything from cars to clothing. Goods were placed on trains and trucks, to be delivered across the country.
After the canal is completed, western dock workers could see competition from the East Coast, too — in Charleston, S.C., for example, maritime interests want the harbor channel deepened to 50 feet so the Port of Charleston can handle the larger container ships expected to call when the expanded canal opens.
Stephen Berry, lead negotiator for the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Association, said the dispute with the clerical workers is inevitably connected to the coming talks with the dockworkers.
"These are the same employers that are at that table," he said, noting that they resisted union demands for over two years to "achieve reasonable and fair objectives."
That "says a lot about what's going on the East Coast right now and what will come back to the West Coast in 2014," he said.
Merrilees, the union spokesman, said the outcome of the clerical strike was encouraging for the dockworkers.
"The impressive degree of unity bodes well for the upcoming negotiations," he said.
Associated Press Writer John Rogers contributed to this report.