LOS ANGELES (AP) -- As cargo ships idled in the harbor or headed elsewhere, negotiators prepared Tuesday to return to the bargaining table with a federal mediator to try to end a costly, eight-day strike that has all but shut down the nation's busiest port complex.
About 44 percent of all cargo arriving in the U.S. by sea passes through the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, accounting for an estimated $1 billion a day in merchandise.
However, since hundreds of clerical workers went on strike, and thousands of dockworkers refused to cross their picket lines, most of that cargo has languished on docks, rail cars or ships.
"There's a billion-dollar impact to a work stoppage of this nature. It's an impact we cannot sustain," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said outside the harbor community center where negotiations have been held.
In the distance, giant cranes used to unload ships stood motionless.
Villaraigosa had emerged from an overnight negotiating session at the center to announce both sides had agreed to call in the mediator, who was expected to arrive by Tuesday evening.
The mayor said he was optimistic that an agreement could be reached within hours, explaining he had seen significant progress in the bargaining.
Representatives of both sides did not seem to share his enthusiasm.
"If it's close to any agreement, it's what kind of bagels we're going to bring in for breakfast," said Steve Getzug of the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Association, which is representing management.
Union spokesman Craig Merrilees did agree with Villaraigosa that significant progress had been made.
"But more remains to be done, particularly around the details of a plan to end the outsourcing of good jobs from the harbor area communities," he said.
Union leaders maintain that management wants to save money by outsourcing clerical jobs to places like China and Taiwan, where it can pay half the money for the same work. The result, they say, would be one more American sector taking an economic hit just to boost a giant company's profit margins.
Management maintains it won't outsource any jobs, but it wants more flexibility for hiring future employees so it doesn't have to pay people to fill slots that aren't needed. It contends the union wants "featherbedding" contract language requiring artificial staffing levels.
While management says it is willing to offer lifetime job security to all currently employed port clerks, the union says it wants to ensure that future generations don't lose out on well-paying jobs that could go overseas or to less labor-friendly states where workers could be forced to take drastic wage reductions.
The union says average clerical salaries are $41 an hour, or about $87,000 a year. When benefits are factored in, that raises annual compensation to $165,000, Getzug said.
After more than two years of unsuccessful contract negotiations, about 400 of the 600 members of the local International Longshore and Warehouse Union clerical workers unit walked off their jobs last week. They shut down 10 of the ports' 14 terminals when 10,000 dockworkers, who are members of their sister union, refused to cross picket lines.
The clerks handle such tasks as filing invoices and billing notices, arranging dock visits by customs inspectors, and ensuring that cargo moves off the dock quickly and gets where it's supposed to go.
Everything from computers to cars moves through the twin ports and onto trucks and trains, headed to warehouses and distribution centers across the country.
It's traffic that ports throughout the country would love to have, labor experts say.
With expansion of the Panama Canal expected to be completed in 2014, Los Angeles and Long Beach can expect to have more competition for shippers, Villaraigosa said.
That competition could heat up even more if shippers can't get their products to U.S. markets because of an extended strike, said Kristin Monaco, an economics professor at California State University, Long Beach, and an expert on port labor issues.
"The Gulf Coast and the East Coast ports would love to have our traffic," Monaco said. "And if I'm a shipper thinking the West Coast is becoming unpredictable because of labor issues, I'm going to be looking into other options."
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