Port of Los Angeles clerks make 'final' contract offer to avert strike

Office clerks at the largest U.S. port complex traded contract proposals with their employers during marathon talks that one labor official hoped would lead to a settlement and avert a possible shutdown of the docks.

The union said it would submit its latest proposal in the evening after both sides in the labor dispute agreed to continue negotiating past a midnight Monday (0700 GMT Tuesday) strike deadline set by the union.

"We will not leave this facility without an agreement - or we're on strike," said John Fageaux Jr., president of the office clerical unit of Local 63, a division of the ILWU. "I believe if we don't have an agreement tonight, you'll see picket signs first thing in the morning."

The 15,000-member International Longshore and Warehouse Union has indicated that longshoremen would honor picket lines if the 750 clerks strike.

That would effectively shut down loading and unloading operations at the neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

While Fageaux declined to provide specifics of the union's latest proposal, he said there were sticking points on wages, job security and health and pension benefits. He said the union initially decided to submit a "last, best and final offer" Monday afternoon but changed its mind later in the day.

The offer was presented at 3 p.m. Steve Berry, lead negotiator for the 14 marine terminal operators and other firms who employ the office clerks, said a counterproposal was given to the union three hours later.

The port complex accounts for 40 percent of all the cargo container traffic coming into the United States.

A work stoppage could create ripple effects throughout many industries that depend on timely movement of cargo. It also would come as the ports enter their busy pre-holiday season, when shippers depend on the facilities to handle imports.

The clerks work at marine terminals and handle bookings for the export of cargo and other transport documents.

Under their most recent contract, full-time, port clerical workers earned about $37.50 (EUR 27.21) an hour, or $78,000 (EUR 56,600) a year. They also receive a pension, health care benefits free of premiums, and 20 paid holidays a year.

Berry said the employers' latest offer included raises that over the life of a three-year contract would bump the employees' hourly pay to $39.50 (EUR 28.66); the union is seeking increases that would equal $53 (EUR 38.46) per hour by the last year of the contract.

In 2002, longshore workers across the West Coast were locked out for 10 days over a contract dispute. The shutdown cost the America's economy an estimated $1 billion (EUR 730 million) to $2 billion (EUR 1.45 billion) a day.