November 29, 2012 11:49 pm

Retailers appeal to Obama in port strike

US retailers’ biggest trade body has called for President Barack Obama to intervene to hammer out a settlement after a dispute involving clerical workers brought a near-halt to container handling at the country’s busiest port complex.

A letter from Matthew Shay, chief executive of the National Retail Federation, to the president told him that a prolonged strike at the neighbouring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach could have “a devastating impact on the US economy”.

Ships were left waiting at anchor and goods were stuck in terminals on Thursday after longshoremen due to work at 10 of the port’s 14 container terminals refused to cross picket lines of clerical workers who came out on strike on Wednesday.

The NRF compared the action to the 10-day lockout of West Coast port workers in 2002, which is estimated to have cost the US economy $1bn and caused severe disruption to retailers and others dependent on containerised imports.

The two ports are the US’s main gateways for trade with Asia and handle 40 per cent of the country’s container imports. The stoppage comes toward the end of the traditional pre-Christmas peak season for imports.

“We call upon you to use all means necessary to get the two sides back to the negotiating table,” Mr Shay wrote to the president.

The 600 clerical workers at the heart of the dispute belong to the Office Clerical Unit (OCU) of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which represents port workers all along the Pacific coast of Canada and the US. The workers have been in negotiations with the Harbor Employers’ Association, the trade body for the port’s employers, for two-and-a-half years over a new contract. The action started at the Pier 400 facility of APM Terminals, the terminals arm of Denmark’s AP Møller-Maersk, on Wednesday and spread to other facilities.

The Harbor Employers’ Association said it had offered to enter mediation with the ILWU over the dispute repeatedly, including an offer as recently as last week. Annual compensation packages for the workers involved ran at around $165,000 a year, against the $40,680 average for a freight and cargo agent in the US, the HEA said. The employers said they had offered the OCU wage and pension increases and guarantees of no lay-offs.

“The OCU’s unreasonable demands and unwillingness to meet with a mediator continue to hold the harbour – and national – economy hostage for the sake of their own self-interest,” the HEA said.

Ray Familathe, the ILWU’s vice-president for the mainland, said he was proud of the sacrifice of members who were refusing to cross picket lines. The ILWU says employers are planning to outsource clerical work abroad.

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