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Working In These Times

Thursday, Dec 6, 2012, 1:44 pm

West Coast Port Workers Strike to Save Jobs From Outsourcing

BY Joseph Lapin

A member of the ILWU's Office Clerical Unit on the picket line.   (Joseph Lapin)

On Tuesday night, the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles were silent and motionless; cranes and cargo ships looked more like relics from a deserted industrial city than an active port. At the West Basin Container Terminal, security guards attempted to look busy around the Custom Scanners inside the terminal, while outside, members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 63’s Office Clerical Unit (OCU) marched back and forth at the entrance, holding signs that read: “On Strike.” 

Beginning on November 27, 450 OCU workers walked out of their jobs and took to the entrances of the terminals with signs, forming a picket line that thousands of dockworkers refused to cross. The strike lasted eight days, finally ending on the night of December 4. Business had been at a standstill at 10 out of the 14 terminals, with shipments left idling throughout the port. The line of trucks that formed outside of the Costco terminal was greeted with several OCU workers and their signs.

Throughout the port many of the workers had set up tents, fully equipped with heat lamps, radios, fold-up chairs, and random swag used to lighten up the hours spent standing out in the cold. The message at these tents was clear: while many labor strikes are about increasing wages or benefits, the clerical workers' grievances had little to do with either.

“It’s about outsourcing, getting language in the contract that we call ‘scope of work,’” said Trinnie Thompson, one of the 40 members of the ILWU bargaining committee. “It’s language on how to protect our jobs here and dealing with technology.” 

Arcelia Negrete-White, a single mother with four children, was one of those workers picketing on Tuesday night. Standing under a tent at the G West terminal while she worked the 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. picketing shift, Negrete-White spoke passionately about her clerical job, calling it “decent wages on decent hours.” Because of her job and benefits, she can take care of her four children and pay for the treatment her daughter needs for her kidney failures. “If I had to work three jobs to take care of my children,” Negrete-White said, “then who’s watching my kids?” 

Negrete-White’s message was in line with many of the workers; the strike was about protecting good jobs and keeping them in their city, so that they can continue to provide a decent life for their family. The OCU workers were upset that their jobs were no longer being refilled after employees retired. Instead, ILWU representatives claim, those positions were being outsourced, in order to avoid paying union rates. 

These clerical workers are unique because their jobs are considered some of the best-paying blue-collar jobs in the country. They make around $40 per hour and receive an excellent benefits package.  “We know we have good jobs and good benefits,” Thompson said, “but it’s about keeping those jobs here in the United States. We’re facing corrupt greed that wants to outsource the jobs for cheaper labor.”

After eight days of unproductive talks, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa tried to intervene. Still the conversations were at a standstill, and a federal mediator was called into negotiations on Tuesday. Finally, after two hours talking with the federal mediator, the strike ended around 10:30 p.m. On Wednesday morning, the port was back to business as usual as the clerks returned to their jobs, the cranes started to unload cargo ships and merchandise began to move. 

The ILWU says it agreed to end the strike on Tuesday night after much stronger language on outsourcing was added to its contract. Though the details are still being ironed out (a process that could take weeks), ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees says the new language means “the company will not be able to make any reductions in the existing staffing by more than one person during the life of the contract. … Also, if workers are on leave, their jobs will be covered by other people.” 

While the decision to strike around the holidays was an unpopular move to many members of the business community, the OCU workers saw the strike as a necessary step in a larger labor struggle.

“The problem of outsourcing affects more people than union members,” Merrilees said. “It’s undermining good jobs in the entire community. This was a fight for all Americans who were sick and tired of seeing good jobs being outsourced.”

Joseph A. Lapin is a freelance writer living in Long Beach, California. He has written for Salon, Pacific Standard, LA Weekly, The Rattling Wall, OC Weekly, and Literary Orphans. He blogs at josephalapin.com.

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