Business & Economy

New strike at LA Ports? Clerical workers reject tentative contract

Clerical workers at the Port of Los Angeles protest outside of the APM Terminals on December 4th, 2012.
Clerical workers at the Port of Los Angeles protest outside of the APM Terminals on December 4th, 2012.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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Clerical workers at the Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, rejected a tentative contract negotiated last year, which could trigger another strike within a week, labor experts said.

All 16 bargaining units under the clerical workers’ union failed to approve the contract, according to the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Association.

The rejection is a big step back to last year’s negotiations, which ended a weeklong tumultuous strike that shut down many terminals at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

A second strike could further hurt the Southern California economy, said C. Kerry Fields, professor of business law and ethics at USC’s Marshall School of Business.

“It’s embarrassing to have the union reject a proposal when among all of the employers in the United States they are the most handsomely compensated for a job that risks being automated,” Fields said. “It should be something the union membership should be more mindful of and their focused selfishness is frankly not endearing the union movement to the American people at all.” 

Last year, about 450 clerical workers set up picket lines in front of port terminals and thousands of longshoremen refused to cross them, causing a delay in the shipments of the nation’s goods—from Valentine’s Day supplies to furniture.

Federal mediators were brought in to foster an agreement between workers organized under the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Harbor Employers Association. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also played a role in getting both sides to come to an agreement.

Villaraigosa said in a statement that he would continue to be engaged “to support a final negotiated resolution.”

“Some differences still remain between the parties, as reflected in the ratification vote results last week,” Villaraigosa said. “However, the parties continue to talk and all terminals remain open and busy.”

Fields said it is possible a strike could happen within a week.

"The membership is in no mood to have the (union) leadership to tell them, 'Let's vote again on the same proposal.' They sent a strong message ... and that they are willing to go on strike," Fields said.

John Fageaux Jr., president of the local clerical unit of the International Longshore Warehouse Union, declined to comment on whether there will be another strike. He also declined to discuss the vote on the tentative contract.

"I can't comment on any of it," Fageaux said.

Clerical workers perform a variety of duties including processing bills and setting up the trucking schedule. The clerical workers went on strike last year because they believed their jobs were being outsourced to countries like India and Costa Rica. The Harbor Employers Association said that wasn't the case.

The strike ended last year when the workers’ 40-member negotiating group voted unanimously in favor of a tentative agreement with their employers. This would bring the proposed contract to a final vote among the union’s 450 clerical workers.

At the time, union members said there was language in the agreement that prevented their jobs from being sent overseas.

Unionized clerical workers also received a wage and benefits package of about $185,000 to $190,000 a year, up from the previous $165,000, the Harbor Employers Association said in December.

But there were also union concessions. The employer wanted more flexibility with its staffing. Under the tentative agreement, 51 open positions will be gone and as clerical workers retire, 14 of those jobs will go unfilled, union negotiator Trinie Thompson told KPCC in December.

It is unclear why the clerical workers’ 450 members did not ratify the contract. The Harbor Employers Association did not immediately return calls for comment.