A small union of maritime clerks managed to shut down most of the nation's busiest seaport complex Wednesday, raising concerns about harm to the fragile economy.
Although late November is a relatively slow time for cargo movement at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, a prolonged closure could prove costly for retailers and manufacturers who rely on the ports to get their goods as well as truckers and other businesses that depend on the docks for work.
"You are stranding goods at ports that handle 40% of the nation's import trade," said Jock O'Connell, an international trade economist who works as an advisor to Beacon Economics.
"The danger here is that this could call into question the reliability of the San Pedro Harbor ports," O'Connell said. "The Wal-Marts and the Home Depots may be forced to think twice about relying on these ports as their primary gateway."
Showing an influence that extended far beyond its numbers, the 800-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63's Office Clerical Unit established picket lines at seven of the eight terminals at the Port of Los Angeles, which is the largest container port in the U.S.
The union, whose members handle most of the paperwork for ships entering and leaving the ports, also struck three of the six terminals at the neighboring Port of Long Beach, which ranks second only to Los Angeles in the amount of container cargo it moves.
The union's picket lines had at least the tacit approval of the larger, 50,000-member ILWU of dockworkers, clerks and other workers who handle all of the cargo on the west coasts of the U.S. and Canada and in Hawaii.
About 10,000 of those dockworkers are employed at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports, and they refused to cross the lightly manned picket lines. That left the normally bustling harbor eerily quiet for a Wednesday afternoon.
On Tuesday, with the walkout confined to the APM Terminals at the Port of Los Angeles, an arbitrator ruled that the picket lines were invalid because the union was not bargaining in good faith. The arbitrator ordered union members to return to work Tuesday night, but they refused. Union members have been working without a contract since June 30, 2010.
At the entrance to Long Beach's Total Terminals International, six members of the clerical workers union held signs that said, "On Strike ... For hours, wages & working conditions." Workers on that picket line and six others said they were under strict orders not to talk to the news media.
Officially, the union fell back on a statement released Tuesday evening and had no further comment Wednesday.
In that statement, logistics clerk Trinie Thompson said the workers were "drawing the line against corporate greed and outsourcing that's destroying the good-paying jobs that support working families in our community." The union's primary concern is that its jobs could be transferred to nonunion labor in countries with lower wages.
But the 14 employers involved in the contract negotiations — some of the largest ocean shipping lines and terminal operators in the world — said they hadn't outsourced any jobs. The management group said it had offered "absolute job security" and generous wage and pension increases.
The employers have accused the union of engaging in the practice of "feather bedding," requiring employers to call in temporary employees and hire new permanent employees even when there is no work to perform.
On Wednesday, the management group said the union's conduct "shows an irresponsible willingness to jeopardize port operations and thousands of jobs in the Los Angeles area." If a strike drags on, "the negative effects on jobs and the economy will be felt nationwide," the employers said.
The dispute was raising concerns far beyond the harbor area.
"A work stoppage at America's two busiest ports just as the holiday shopping season begins is a recipe for disaster," said Sandy Kennedy, president of the Retail Industry Leaders Assn., a trade group. "If the strike isn't resolved quickly, the effects on retailers, their customers and the economy will be enormous."
A 10-day lockout in 2002 at all West Coast ports left ships piling up offshore, unable to unload cargo. The cost of the dispute was estimated as high as $15 billion.
California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein issued a statement urging a quick resolution of the dispute "so we can protect the economy of the Los Angeles region, the West Coast and our nation, which will be adversely affected by the closures at these ports."
Rep. Janice Hahn (D-San Pedro) said she was backing the port workers.
"I stand in solidarity with the hard-working clerical workers, most of whom are women, of the ILWU Local 63's Office Clerical Unit, who are striking today to prevent their jobs from being sent overseas," Hahn said in a statement. "These workers have been bargaining in good faith for over two years, and I urge a fair resolution that keeps these good-paying jobs" at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.