Beach Break: Port strike on the horizon?

Most car salesmen and toy slangers don't worry too much about labor issues in the shipping world, but perhaps they should. A strike or lockout at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach would disrupt mostly Asian imports like the cars, electronics, furniture, apparel and toys that comprise the port’s largest imports.

Maybe they'll worry now: Local 63 of the the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), which represents nearly 1,000 clerical workers at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, may strike on June 30 because the employers at the port are trying to limit the workers' generous health benefits to a several-thousand-dollar-per-year stipend.

The two ports combine to make the busiest port in the United States, handling nearly 40 percent of the country's seaborne imports each year. The ILWU represents a majority of the port’s employees—including almost 30,000 Long Beach residents, all of whom can be expected to support the clerical workers' picket lines with sympathy strikes.

Steve Berry, the attorney representing the employers involved in the contract negotiation, did not respond to repeated interview requests. But John Fageaux, Local 63's president, charged that the employers are trying to wipe out union medical benefits that took decades of organizing to obtain. “They are offering the incentive that if we don’t use the money it is then transferred into a retirement account,” Fageaux said. “Normal benefits as we know them now would cease to exist.”

The medical benefits currently available to port workers are considered some of the best in the country. When Pasha Stevedoring employee Marilyn Jackson’s fiancé was diagnosed with cancer, a battle that eventually resulted in his passing, the medical bills amounted to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Jackson said that because of her fiancé’s port administration benefits, the bills totaled no more than $6,000 out-of-pocket for the five years of medical care he endured.

“If this stipend was the policy while [my fiancé] was going through [cancer], I would probably be homeless right now,” Jackson said. “[The ILWU] won’t let [the stipend] happen, and if the office clericals go on strike, it will shut the whole port down.”

Jackson's threat isn't necessarily hyperbolic. Because the office clerical workers are part of the ILWU, members of other ILWU union chapters would support their white-collar comrades by refusing to cross picket lines, essentially resulting in a major port shutdown.

If an agreement is not reached and the contracts are not signed by the contract expiration date, the union will go on strike or suffer a lockout by the employers. If a strike or lockout persists without a resolution the issue will move into arbitration.

“It is a little early to tell if this contract signing will end up in a strike,” Fageaux said. “Things went poorly [on Tuesday], so I didn’t show for negotiations [on Wednesday]. Fageaux added that Local 63 has tried to compromise with employers by cutting their annual holidays and time off for jury duty and funeral leave, but the employers returned to the table with the same proposal on medical benefits. “They hadn’t changed a thing,” he said. “There is certainly potential for a strike.”


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