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December 6, 2012

Ports reopen after crippling strike ends

LOS ANGELES — Port clerks returned to work Wednesday, jubilant in the knowledge that an eight-day strike that paralyzed the nation’s busiest shipping complex had won them — at least for now — guarantees that their jobs won’t be outsourced to China, Arizona or other places.

The 600 clerical workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union won only modest increases in wage and pension benefits over the life of a new four-year contract.

But more importantly, said union spokesman Craig Merrilees, they extracted promises from management that, as workers retire or leave the ports during the next four years, no more than 14 jobs will be outsourced. Companies also must continue to provide workers to fill in for vacationing employees and those who take extended absences, but don’t have to cover for short-term illnesses or bereavement leave.

“The key issue in this whole strike was the outsourcing of good jobs, and they won protections against outsourcing abuses,” Merrilees said.

He acknowledged that the issue would likely be front and center in negotiations when the new contract expires in 2016.

Shippers denied outsourcing jobs, but strikers insisted they had proof.

Trinnie Thompson, a union shop steward, said workers have seen invoices and emails showing some of their responsibilities being usurped by people in offices in Costa Rica, Shanghai, Colorado and Arizona.

“They take a job here in California where the average salary is $65,000 and are paying only $30,000 in a state like Arizona,” she said.

The clerks handle such tasks as filing invoices and billing notices, arranging dock visits by customs inspectors, and ensuring that cargo moves off the dock quickly and gets where it’s supposed to go.

The increasing computerization of such tasks, which allows them to be performed in cities far from the ocean, makes the clerks especially vulnerable, say labor experts.

“These are fairly complicated jobs, you can’t just hire anybody to do them, but nevertheless they can be done from other places,” said Nelson Lichtenstein, director of the Center for the Study of Work Labor and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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