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Los Angeles port strike triggers fears, lobbying by businesses

By Tim Reid and Steve Gorman

(Reuters) - A national coalition of U.S. business groups is urging an end to a strike at the twin California ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach amid fears that a prolonged stand-off will cost the American economy many billions of dollars, and could even spread to the east coast.

Trade groups led by the National Retail Federation have sent letters to U.S. President Barack Obama and leading members of Congress asking them to intervene and help end the strike at America's two busiest container harbor facilities. Those industry groups say the strike, which entered its sixth day on Sunday, is already costing $1 billion a day.

The labor dispute has been triggered by 500 clerical workers at the ports, members of the relatively small Office of Clerical Union Workers. Their industrial action and clout has been significantly strengthened because some 10,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union have supported them, refusing to cross the clerical workers' picket lines.

Their action has effectively shut down 10 of the two ports' combined 14 container terminals. Four other container terminals have remained opened, along with facilities for handling break-bulk cargo such as raw steel and tanker traffic.

Industry groups say they have fresh memories of a 10-day lockout at West Coast ports in 2002. They estimate that dispute cost the U.S. economy $1 billion a day and that it took six months before the supply chains fully recovered.

Groups are also warily monitoring an ongoing labor dispute between the International Longshoremen's Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance which could affect ports from Maine to Texas.

The employment contract between the two groups expired at the end of September without a new agreement. The contract was temporarily extended for 90 days, until the end of this year. A federal mediator has stepped in to oversee negotiations to try an avert a strike that would hit at least 14 ports along the East and Gulf coasts.

"Our members are very nervous and very upset about the impact of the (Los Angeles) strike on their businesses," said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation.

"We have had a lot of feedback. They have very fresh memories of what happened in 2002 and what is happening on the east coast."

Gold said his organization has been working with groups including the American Apparel and Footwear Association, the Retail Industry Leaders Industry Association and the Harbor Truckers Association to pressure lawmakers in Washington to end the stand-off.

The NRF sent a letter to Obama last week asking him to intervene. Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein, California's two Democratic senators, have also urged both sides to resolve the dispute.

Negotiations ran late into Saturday and continued Sunday. The clerks had been without a contract for more than two years when labor talks with management broke off on Monday. The chief stumbling block has been the future of union representation for jobs that are lost through retirement.

ILWU leaders are demanding that jobs traditionally performed by their members remain classified as union work and subject to the union's contract terms, even after individuals holding those jobs retire. They accuse the management of seeking to outsource union clerical jobs to overseas workers paid far less in wages and benefits.

The Port of Los Angeles, the nation's busiest container harbor facility, and second-ranked Long Beach together handled more than $400 billion in goods arriving or leaving the West Coast by ship, L.A. port spokesman Philip Sanfield said.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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