A strike that began Tuesday afternoon in one terminal at the Port of Los Angeles spread Wednesday, crippling much of the operations at the nation's largest port complex.
By the end of the day, workers had struck at six of the seven terminals at the Port of Los Angeles and three of six terminals at the Port of Long Beach, officials said.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit, which is working under terms of a set of contracts that expired in June 2010, began setting up the additional picket lines around midday Wednesday.
Other longshore bargaining units refused to cross the lines, and no cargo at the nine affected terminals was unloaded or loaded after the strike began. Officials said shipping lines were either sending ships to other ports or having them wait off the coast.
"We are completely shut down," said Alan McCorkle, senior vice president of APM Terminals Pacific Limited, the largest terminal operator at the Los Angeles port. "There's no work for us to do until we can start moving cargo again.
It is not clear when the strike will end, but insiders say one of three scenarios is likely. In the first, the sides will come to an agreement on a new set of contracts. In the second, the Office Clerical Unit will quietly drop its picket lines and return to work as it continues to bargain for a new contract, effectively going back to the situation before the strike. In the third, President Barack Obama could seek an emergency injunction under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which could require the workers to return to the port during an 80-day cooling off period.
If longshore workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach wanted to pick the most strategic opportunity for a strike - a chance to exert pressure on terminal managers without affecting the flow of the most crucial holiday goods to stores - experts say they may have found it.
That's because this week is considered among the lightest of the year for freight shipped from Asia. All of the goods meant for the Christmas shopping season - items like furniture, televisions and toys - arrived at both ports about a month ago. And major retailers have a few weeks before they'll need to restock their shelves.
"If it had happened in mid-October or if it had happened about the same time Superstorm Sandy was striking the East Coast and plugging up things there, that would have been horrible," said Kristen Monaco, professor of economics at California State University, Long Beach. "This sends a message. The intent is not to actually disrupt operations for a week. It's to cause a couple of days of discomfort to show what could happen."
But while a one- or two-day strike at this time of the year might not affect the Southern California economy greatly, experts say if it lasts any longer it could cripple the area. Shippers generally have the option to send their goods to various ports, and it's possible they might start sending cargo to more locations in the future.
"You start worrying about it," said Jock O'Connell, who analyzes shipping industry trends for Beacon Economics. "The longer term consequences of this would be to further undermine the idea that these are not reliable ports to ship your goods to. You don't want to rely on a port that for whatever reason shuts down."
Los Angeles and Long Beach are the giants of the American port industry, with Los Angeles the top port, measured by container traffic, and Long Beach second, according to industry data. Los Angeles is the world's 16th busiest port by container traffic while Long Beach is 18th, statistics show.
According to the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association, a West Coast consortium of marine terminal operators, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach generate more than $10billion in state and local tax revenues annually.
The strike is attracting the attention of politicians. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, both Democrats, issued a joint statement urging both sides to come together to resolve the dispute. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wrote a letter to both sides asking them to settle quickly, while Los Angeles-area Democratic Reps. Janice Hahn and Judy Chu issued statements in support of the strikers.
One of the smallest bargaining units at the docks is causing the disruption. The roughly 800-member Office Clerical Unit, whose members handle billing, record tracking and some customer interactions, have been working to secure new contracts at both ports.
Stephen Berry, a negotiator for the employers, said under the old contracts, workers earn either $40 or $41 per hour, receive a full pension after as little as 10 years of work, and receive 11 weeks of paid time off annually.
Berry said the employers have offered slight raises. But both sides agree the dispute is not about money.
Union officials say the companies have been quietly moving some jobs to Taipei, Taiwan; Costa Rica; Charlotte, N.C.; and Texas, a charge employer representatives vehemently deny.
"Everyone agrees these are good-paying jobs," ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said. "The difference is here that the companies resent providing those good-paying jobs in the long run and have taken steps to steadily ship them elsewhere to the detriment of the local communities around the harbor."
Berry, an attorney at Paul Hastings LLP, said the real problem is so-called feather-bedding - or a contractual requirement that forces employers to hire temporary or permanent employees when they're not needed.
"This accusation of outsourcing is just a red herring," Berry said. "Why would we outsource their jobs when we have given them a guaranteed job for life?"
Elsewhere, the strikes have not had any impact, as of yet, on the movement of goods via freight, said Lena Kent, a spokeswoman for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad.
"We'll certainly have to watch it and see where it leads to, but at this time it's not having an impact on our operations," Kent said of the strike. "We're certainly watching it closely."
The situation was the same for Union Pacific Railroad, where officials Wednesday were continuing to monitor the situation closely, said company spokesman Aaron Hunt.
As for traffic, the impact appeared minimal Wednesday.
"It's still too early to tell what kind of impact the strike will have on Inland Empire traffic," said Officer Mario Lopez, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol's Inland Division.
More than 10,000 commercial tractor-trailers go through the truck scales on both the northbound and southbound sides of Interstate 15 every week, according to CHP figures. That number could be much higher because the truck scales are only open Monday through Friday from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.
"We have so much truck traffic in the Inland Empire from other industries that I don't think we'll see much of an impact initially," said Terri Kasinga, a spokeswoman for Caltrans 8, which monitors the Inland Empire highways and freeways.
A prolonged strike could have some effect on local highways and freeways, but Kasinga believes it may be minimal.
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Staff writers Karen Robes Meeks, Beatriz E. Valenzuela and Joe Nelson contributed to this article.