About 800 clerical workers based at the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports find
themselves in a position to wreak havoc on the economy of Southern California.
Members of a local unit of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, they
have gone on strike against the shipping
companies that employ them, shutting down most of the cargo terminals at the two
ports. The dispute epitomizes the issues confronted by organized labor in a
globally connected world: The union is fighting to hold onto jobs that are
increasingly threatened by automation and the Internet.
The striking workers, who have shut down 10 of the 14 terminals at the ports
since picketing began Nov. 27, are not exactly destitute. They earn about $40 an
hour, plus generous health and pension benefits, and the shippers have
apparently offered them an 18% increase in total compensation. The shippers say
they've also pledged not to lay off any workers or eliminate positions unless
forced to by circumstances out of their control.
The union insists that the shippers have already been moving jobs to
lower-cost locales, and it wants more assurances that the work will stay in Los
Angeles and Long Beach. To some degree, though, it's trying to buck a
technology-driven trend that's transforming entire industries. Importers are
increasingly making their shipping arrangements through the Internet, redefining
the role played by human clerks.