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Sens. Boxer, Feinstein urge quick resolution in port labor talks

California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein today joined a growing chorus of concern over the status of long stalled labor contract negotiations at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

More than two years have passed since the last contract expired between the small Office Clerical Unit of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 and 14 shipping lines and cargo terminal operators at the nation’s busiest seaport complex. Both sides remain far apart and there are fears that a breakdown in talks could lead to a partial or complete shutdown of work at both ports.

The possibility of the latter is why the senators felt it was necessary to weigh in, according to the letter they sent to the union president, John Fageaux Jr., and Stephen Berry, the lead negotiator for the employers.

“With the fragile state of California’s economy and growing competition from other U.S. ports,” the Boxer/Feinstein letter said, “it is essential that both parties reach an agreement that will protect these important jobs and allow the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to continue operating without disruption.”

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The Office Clerical Unit has fewer than 1,000 members, but has the ability to shut down part or all of both ports if its members establish picket lines that are subsequently honored by its larger brother union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

The ILWU is the 50,000-member union that represents dockworkers along the entire West Coast of the U.S., Hawaii and parts of Canada. This year, the office clerical workers did set up a picket line, but an arbitrator ruled the picket line wasn’t justified and said that the bigger union had to continue to go to work.

That ruling was later overturned by a higher ranking official known as the coast arbitrator, but the clerical workers have not put up another picket line. Neither side is willing to talk on the record. Privately, the employers say they have offered generous wage increases, a signing bonus and increased pension benefits. They accuse the union of intransigence.

The union’s workers process the paperwork used by shipping lines and cargo terminals. Privately, the union has said it remains deeply concerned about the possibility of the employers allowing workers in other regions or other countries to perform the same paperwork.

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This is not the only ports-related labor negotiation raising fears. A Sept. 30 contract expiration date is approaching for the separate International Longshoremen’s Assn., which represents dockworkers on the Gulf Coast and the East Coast, and several shipping lines and port associations.

The Retail Industry Leaders Assn., which represents more than 200 retailers, has written a letter to both sides in those negotiations, urging them to reach an agreement before the contract expires to avoid disruptions in their shipping arrangements.

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