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 stakes are high for the union, but with almost 40% of the nation's imported cargo containers passing through those ports, they're enormous for the region and, possibly, the entire country. The longer it takes the two sides to reach a deal, the more goods that will be diverted to other ports — and the greater the damage to the companies and workers whose jobs begin after the containers are unloaded.
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.
The two sides are still talking, so it would make little sense for the Obama administration to seek a court order sending the strikers back to their desks. With ships finding other ports to offload their cargo, it may be hard to convince a judge that the strike poses the kind of national health or safety emergency necessary to impose a cooling-off period under the Taft-Hartley Act. And the mere prospect of court action would also stiffen the shippers' position, making it harder to reach a deal.
If the two sides can't come to an agreement within days, however, they should invite a federal mediator to bring a dispassionate assessment to the talks and suggest ways to bridge the gap. The union has resisted the idea, but even labor allies such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have urged the appointment of a mediator in the hope of limiting the damage to the local economy. That damage will only grow as the strike enters its second week. The two sides need to stay at the table until a deal is done.