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Cargo ships stack up as Los Angeles port strike in 7th day

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Freighters with no place to unload their cargo lined up at anchorages off Los Angeles and Long Beach for a seventh day on Monday as shippers and striking clerks resumed talks to end a labor dispute that has idled most of America's biggest container port complex.

The two sides remained at loggerheads over the future of union representation for clerical jobs after individuals retire from those jobs, but the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 has so far resisted calls for outside mediation.

The 800-member clerical workers unit of the ILWU local walked off the job last Tuesday, with some 10,000 longshoremen and other union members refusing to cross picket lines, forcing a shutdown at 10 of the twin ports' 14 container terminals.

Four other container terminals remained open, along with facilities for handling shipments of automobiles, liquid fuels and break-bulk cargo such as raw steel.

The overall economic impact of the strike has been estimated to run at more than $1 billion a day, including lost wages of dock workers, truckers and others idled by the walkout, and the value of cargo rerouted by shippers.

The strike has prompted at least 11 freighters to take their cargo to other ports in northern California, Mexico and Panama, according to the nonprofit Maritime Exchange of Southern California, which tracks shipping traffic in the region.

Another 11 ships were waiting at anchorages outside the Los Angeles - Long Beach complex, unable to discharge their cargo, said Dick McKenna, executive director of the Maritime Exchange.

Although the strike began after the busy pre-holiday shipping season, the diversion of freight originally bound for Los Angeles and Long Beach has heightened growing concerns about southern California losing business to other ports.

"Shippers are a conservative bunch. If there is no reliability at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, they'll go someplace else," said Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the Harbor Employers Association, representing shippers and terminal operators in the labor talks.

UNION RESISTING CALLS FOR MEDIATION

Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa sent a letter to negotiators for both sides on Monday urging them to bring in a mediator to help resolve the dispute and to stay at the bargaining table around the clock until an agreement is reached.

The Harbor Trucking Association, representing 8,000 truck drivers, called on Monday for the Federal Maritime Commission to bring greater pressure to bear for a settlement.

The National Retail Federation and other U.S. business groups sent separate letters to President Barack Obama and leading members of Congress asking them to intervene, warning that a prolonged strike "would have a devastating impact on the U.S. economy."

Marathon negotiations over the weekend, capped by another exchange of proposals, failed to produce a breakthrough.

John Fageaux, head of the ILWU Local's clerical workers union, criticized management's negotiators for calling a break in the talks Saturday night, saying, "We were prepared to bargain all night."

"I'm really disappointed," he told Reuters. "I don't feel there's any urgency on the part of the employers to get this deal done." The striking clerks have been without a contract for more than two years.

Asked about suggestions for mediation, Fageaux said, "We haven't ruled that out, (but) I don't think at this point a mediator can really help."

Getzug, of the employers association, said they were "trying to move this thing along as quickly as possible," and said the companies would welcome a mediator.

"We've offered, as late as yesterday, generous wage and benefits packages and absolute job guarantees, and in exchange, we're making what we believe is a reasonable request to have flexibility in hiring new or temporary workers when there's no work for them to do."

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 them retire. They accuse the management of seeking to outsource union clerical jobs to overseas workers paid far less.

The employers insist on reserving the right to fill only those jobs that need to be filled, and they accuse the union of seeking to featherbed work that is unnecessary, even after jobs are lost through retirement.

The strike at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the two busiest container ports in the nation, mark the largest disruption of cargo traffic through the two southern California facilities since a 10-day lockout at West Coast ports in 2002.

The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach together handled more than $400 billion in goods arriving or leaving the West Coast by ship last year.

The two ports directly or indirectly support roughly 1.2 million southern California jobs - workers involved in moving freight to or from the shipping complex, experts say. That does not count ancillary employment of people hired in restaurants, retail or other businesses that provide various services to those workers.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Vicki Allen)

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