War Of Words Erupts As LA And Long Beach Are Hit By Strikes

A war of words has erupted between employers and union representatives as industrial action by clerical workers in the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach disrupts one of the world's largest container port complexes.

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Some marine terminals have had to suspend operations because of the strike, which comes at a time when ports on the US east coast could be shut down at the end of the year if negotiations on a new labour contract collapse. Fear of labour unrest in Atlantic and Gulf coast ports has already forced shippers to draw up contingency plans and prepare to move more cargo through US west coast ports instead.

The two Californian ports handle about 14m teu a year between them, and combined would be ranked number eight in the world in terms of annual container throughput, according to Containerisation International.

The Harbor Employers’ Association, which represents terminal operators and ship agencies in southern California, has issued a detailed rebuttal of claims made by the Office Clerical Unit whose members have picketed some facilities this week and closed down operations.

The association warned that its members “could be forced into taking defensive action to protect their interests,” if the OCU continues to disrupt operations, and International Longshore and Warehouse Union dockers and marine clerks do not return to work, as an area arbitrator has directed.

At the same time, the International Transport Workers’ Federation has responded angrily to reports that trade union representatives’ phone calls had been allegedly bugged by employers in the port of Los Angeles.

Action was initially directed towards APM Terminals’ Pier 400 facility in Los Angeles, where ships remained idle at the berth and inbound vessels went direct to an anchorage yesterday.

ITF president Paddy Crumlin specifically mentioned the Danish-owned port operator in a statement about the strike and claims of phone tapping.

“The company concerned is part of the Maersk international group, where there is an established dialogue, so the ITF will be urgently seeking high-level meetings with them to find explanations and a functional resolution of the matter,” said Mr Crumlin.

Strike action has subsequently spread to some other facilities, with the port of Long Beach reporting that three of its six terminals were forced to cease operations yesterday afternoon. These were the Long Beach Container Terminal at Pier F, International Transportation Service at Pier G and Total Terminals International at Pier T.

The 800 clerical workers who have downed tools say they are trying to stop jobs being outsourced, and insist the dispute is not about wages and benefits.

“We’ve been meeting with the companies for more than two years, but they’re still concealing their outsourcing – even when they’ve been caught red-handed,” president of the local OCU John Fageaux claimed. “These employers seem to have an insatiable appetite for outsourcing.”

However, the Harbor Employers’ Association has strongly rejected those allegations.

“The OCU’s conduct smacks of gamesmanship and manifests an irresponsible willingness to jeopardise jobs and operations at the ports for the sake of further increasing their own already extremely generous wages and benefits,” the association said as it denounced OCU’s claims.

Not one OCU job has been sent overseas, or anywhere else, the employers’ association said.

Neither was it true that the dispute was not about remuneration, according to the employers.

“ The OCU rejected each employer’s latest wage and pension proposals, insisting that the employers’ proposal to increase OCU annual compensation packages to over $190,000 in wages and benefits by 2016 is not enough. The employers’ proposals would have given OCU employees average annual wages up to approximately $90,000 per year and pensions of up to $75,000 per year. The OCU have demanded more,” employers said.

[Originally published in Lloyd's List 29 November 2012]