Talks have reportedly faltered between the union representing more than 600 clerical workers at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles and their employers, heightening concerns of a potential shutdown of the nation's busiest seaport complex.
The Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Association, which represents shipping agencies and terminal operators in Southern California, said in a statement Tuesday that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit has halted talks that have been going on for more than 30 months.
"After weeks of negotiations during which the harbor employers believed that progress had been made towards new collective bargaining agreements with the OCU, the OCU has reversed course and once again called an end to negotiations in a move signaling that further OCU-initiated disruption in the LA/Long Beach ports is likely," according to the association.
"The OCU broke off negotiations after backing out of an agreement that provided a framework for resolving the parties' dispute over staffing issues, presenting a series of regressive demands that only served to widen the gap between the parties, and rejecting the harbor employers' latest - and most generous - proposals to date."
Association negotiators couldn't be reached for further comment Tuesday.
Craig Merrilees, communications director for the union, said he hasn't heard of people walking away from the negotiating table.
"The truth is, both sides have been working hard to try to reach an agreement, but if only one of the parties is serious about trying to reach a compromise, then it's very hard to reach an agreement," he said. "Employers need to be willing to reach a settlement. If not, people are going to get frustrated. ... The union has been at this for more than 30 months and very much wants to reach an agreement."
Members of Local 63, who have worked without a contract since the previous one expired in July 2010, have expressed concern about the implementation of new booking information technology that could prompt employers to outsource jobs. That technology is already being used at other ports.
"These big international companies are guests at the ports of LA and LB that are owned by and for the benefit of the people in the community," Merrilees said. "Some of these big companies have decided that they're going to start outsourcing the good jobs that have been essential to the surrounding port communities.
"Somebody's got to draw a line at some point. It shouldn't surprise people that at a certain point we're going to stand up to the bully and call them out on this scheme to outsource good jobs."
The Harbor Employers Association said that it has proposed "absolute job security," guaranteed full-time pay, wage increases and a one-time $3,000 payment to each permanent employee to cover missed pay hikes in 2010 and 2011.
The proposal also calls for pension raises for the next two years and maintaining pension benefits for the following two years.
In terms of staffing and technology, employers are agreeing to give up full control over whether and when temporary employees are called in to work.
But the union is demanding that employers hire additional, unnecessary employees and is insisting on stronger restraints on the implementation and use of technology, after agreeing to back down on those demands, the employers group said.
"These demands are difficult to grasp in the midst of a struggling economy that continues to have a severe impact on the container shipping industry and Los Angeles/Long Beach harbor community, where unemployment in Los Angeles County totaled 10.5 percent in October 2012," according to a statement by the association. "The OCU's actions reinforce perceptions held by shippers, retailers and other trade partners across the globe that the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are being held hostage by union self-interest - in this case, the interests of 600 office clerks."
Merrilees said that all parties agree that talks have generated many parts of a fair agreement but added that employers can't deny their role in destroying jobs at other ports.
"The jobs that supported so many harbor families in the community could go up in smoke," he said. "These are big international companies and they are behaving like bullies and they think they can outsource jobs to lower wage countries."
Clerical workers have already picketed twice at individual terminals. Each time, an arbitrator has ruled that longshore workers couldn't participate in the walkouts.
But a higher-level West Coast arbitrator earlier this year sided with the ILWU, saying that dockworkers can now honor the clerical workers' picket lines without violating their contracts.
Both sides may consider other options should an impasse occur, including mediation, but a decision to picket could mean a portwide shutdown. The ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are an essential part of the U.S. economy, handling 40 percent of the nation's imports.
"A strike is always a possibility if companies aren't willing to address the concerns ... of outsourcing good jobs," Merrilees said. "Nobody ever takes talk of a strike lightly, and it's always the last resort. At a certain point, there are times when a community has to take a stand against corporate greed."