With a crippling strike at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles entering its second week, a federal mediator arrived Tuesday night in hopes of brokering a deal acceptable to both sides.
The presence of director George H. Cohen of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service signaled a new stage in the talks, which stalled Tuesday morning after both sides talked throughout the night but could not reach a resolution.
Representatives from both sides said Cohen would help management and union officials focus on the key issues in reaching a deal to reopen all terminals at both ports - by far the largest and most important port complex in the United States. Even before Cohen arrived, sources participating in the negotiations said talks became more intense Tuesday evening in anticipation of his arrival.
Workers in the 800-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit, many of whom have been under terms of a contract that expired in June 2010, have been on strike since the middle of last week.
It began on Nov. 27 at APM Terminals Pacific Ltd.
Sources involved in the talks say the negotiations, which did not begin until Thursday, have at times been frustrating, with both sides sometimes believing they had made progress only to see it disappear as the talks continued.
Since the strike began, union officials have said the next set of contracts must prohibit terminal operators from outsourcing clerical jobs to lower paid employees in other countries and states, a process they say has already begun. Clerical unit workers handle a range of back office duties for terminal operators at both ports.
In response, management officials have said they are not sending jobs elsewhere, and that new contracts must allow them the flexibility to hire workers only when they're needed. They say they're sometimes forced to fill jobs that do not need to exist.
Office Clerical Unit negotiators had resisted management calls for a mediator for several days, saying a resolution would be better worked out through informal talks. Union officials were concerned a mediator would force them to make too many concessions unpalatable to their members, sources said.
But they acquiesced Tuesday morning after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa failed to help the sides reach a deal during negotiations that lasted all night. In the hopes of resolving the strike, Villaraigosa arrived at the talks at around midnight, coming directly from the airport following a nine-day trade mission to South America funded in part by the Port of Los Angeles.
"They need a third-party intervention," Villaraigosa said Tuesday from outside Banning's Landing Community Center in Wilmington, where talks had been taking place.
Acknowledging the union had not wanted a mediator for several days, ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said union officials are optimistic a deal can be reached with the help of Cohen and Deputy Director Scot L. Beckenbaugh. A spokesman for the Los Angeles Long Beach Harbor Employers Association said management officials were also pleased with Tuesday's developments and hoped the mediator could help the sides reach a deal.
"The union didn't think it was necessary," the ILWU's Merrilees said. "The union always feels it's best to deal directly. But if the federal mediator helps get the deal done that protects working families, communities and our country, then it's worth a shot."
Villaraigosa, a former high-ranking union official, has a background in labor-management negotiations. But he said the sides were too far apart to reach an agreement in the overnight hours. He said a trained mediator likely will have a better chance at forging an agreement.
"I don't have a magic wand," he said. "I can't dictate to management or labor what their bottom line is."
Business groups continue to call on President Barack Obama to wade into the negotiations, perhaps by invoking his powers under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act governing labor-management relations. As President George W. Bush did in 2002 during a 10-day lockout at ports along the West Coast, Obama could ask a federal judge to issue an order requiring an 80-day cooling off period for both sides.
But Villaraigosa called that scenario unlikely on Tuesday, saying the 2002 action was different because it affected all the ports along the West Coast, rather than just one port complex. He noted that the Taft-Hartley mechanism requires the president to invoke a national emergency in order to move forward.
Both ports remained relatively quiet on Tuesday, with a handful of strikers at each affected terminal maintaining picket lines.
At the Port of Los Angeles - the largest port in the United States by container volume - 10 ships have been sitting dockside, untouched, since last week, while 20 ships scheduled to arrive recently have diverted, spokesman Phillip Sanfield said.
At least 11 ships have gone to the Port of Oakland, while at least five have gone to ports in Mexico, he said. While ships have docked elsewhere, many of the containers scheduled to come to Southern California are simply waiting on ships and at other ports until the strike ends, port officials say. Eventually, the containers will return to the Los Angeles area.
Combined, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach account for more than 1 million direct and indirect jobs in the region, and move 40 percent of all containerized trade nationwide, according to port officials. More than $400 billion worth of goods flow through the ports annually, which support nearly 3 million jobs in a vast supply chain across the country.
Economists have estimated the strike is costing the Southern California economy a little more than $1 billion a day, but some have called that figure misleading, saying many of the nonperishable goods stuck on containers will eventually reach markets throughout the West, and noting that the four remaining open terminals continue to process cargo.
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