LA digs out of box jam

LA digs out of box jam

LOS ANGELES - Thousands of longshoremen returned to work at Los Angeles-Long Beach Tuesday after taking off for a long July 4 holiday, with waterfront employers reporting that the ensuing backlog of vessels and cargo will last through next weekend.

Most vessels calling at the Southern California port complex are being delayed at least one shift in getting labor. Even then, the Pacific Maritime Association is rationing the dispatch of work crews so terminal operators are not receiving the full allotment of longshore gangs that they request.

"Probably one-third of the gangs don't fill," said James McKenna, president of the employers organization.

Meanwhile, contract negotiations are scheduled to resume Wednesday between International Longshore and Warehouse Union office clerical workers and 16 shipping lines and terminal operators in Southern California.

The contract for about 700 office workers expired on July 1. John Fageaux, president of ILWU Local 63 Office Clerical Unit, said negotiations broke off at 6:30 a.m. Sunday over differences in technology provisions in the new contract.

The office workers, like general longshoremen, could face job losses as employers implement automation and other new technology. The clerical unit is seeking job guarantees similar to those obtained by longshoremen in the 2002 coastwide contract.

On the docks, terminals first felt the effects of the shortage of general longshore labor over the weekend of June 19-20 as more longshoremen than anticipated took off work for Father's Day. It took employers three days to dig out from the cargo backlog.

Labor shortages continued to plague the nation's largest container complex as employers each day called up all available part-time longshoremen, known as casuals, but were still not able to fill hundreds of positions each day.

The situation became critical over the July 4 weekend as many longshoremen took off work on Sunday and Monday, the latter a traditional no-work day commemorating the founding of the union.

McKenna said the PMA has placed a cap on how many longshore gangs will be assigned to each terminal, with the cap being determined by how many registered longshoremen and casuals make themselves available for work each day. The goal of the cap is to ensure that only full gangs are dispatched.

"We're trying to manage the situation based on the availability of workers," he said.

The PMA and ILWU agreed upon a short-term program of hiring casual workers that should result in additional casuals being ready to work next week, McKenna said. The PMA and ILWU are also working on a longer-term plan to hire thousands of new casuals in LA-Long Beach over the next 30 to 60 days, he said.

Terminal operators are anticipating record container volumes as peak season back-to-school and holiday cargoes begin moving across the docks. May traffic was the highest ever recorded in LA- Long Beach except for October 2003, the height of last year's peak shipping season.