Southern California’s Power Struggle

Southern California’s Power Struggle

Waterfront employers are always relieved when the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union agrees to a new contract and guarantees West Coast ports six years of labor peace. In reality, though, the ILWU dockworkers’ contract is just a warm-up for the subsequent negotiations between terminal operators and the even more aggressive office clerical workers union.

The Office Clerical Unit of ILWU Local 63 in Southern California demonstrated on June 30 just how aggressive it can be. The union presented its demands less than four hours before the contract expired, and workers walked off their jobs at midnight.

On average, OCU members earn $96,900 a year, with some earning as much as $250,000, with an additional $65,000 in benefits. Although the two sides are still far apart on wage issues, OCU President John Fageaux said the main issue is that employers in recent years expanded their electronic portals so that outside agencies are handling functions historically belonging to the OCU.

Employers responded by guaranteeing full-time work for all current OCU members. Employers also offered a guarantee of no outsourcing, to which Fageaux responded: “When you allow someone else to enter your system, you’re transferring our work that we won through collective bargaining.”

At most ports, employers note, cargo is booked electronically directly with shipping lines and terminal operators. Cargo interests in Southern California also have booked shipments electronically since the 2004 OCU contract was signed.

In the current negotiations, however, the OCU demands that cargo interests again book all shipments through an OCU member. Employers say that would put Los Angeles and Long Beach at a tremendous disadvantage. Except for a small presence in Northern California, the OCU is confined to Southern California.

The OCU began to organize individual terminal operators and shipping lines in the 1980s, eventually organizing 14 facilities. On the East Coast, an unrelated office clerical unit of the International Longshoremen’s Association represents office workers and port captains at Evergreen Marine in New Jersey.

Some employers over the years avoided OCU organizing attempts by moving their clerical functions to distant locations such as Salt Lake City and Dallas. A few defeated organizing efforts by offering clerical workers wages and job security similar to what the OCU had negotiated with other employers. However, the medical and pension benefits in the OCU contracts became so costly that those companies eventually moved whatever functions they could out of Southern California.

The OCU represents about 585 full-time workers in Los Angeles-Long Beach, but it wields significant power because of its affiliation with the ILWU. The last contract was negotiated in 2007 under tense circumstances, with the OCU threatening walkouts but ultimately not following through. A deal was reached three weeks after the previous contract expired.

The OCU strike itself does not affect cargo-handling because the terminals simply perform the OCU work with managers. The threat of ILWU dockworkers honoring the OCU picket lines is real, however, and a walkout by cargo-handlers would cripple the ports.

ILWU dockworkers on two occasions since June 30 refused to cross the OCU picket lines, but waterfront arbitrators ruled the OCU was not bargaining in good faith and ordered the dockworkers back to their jobs. The union has appealed both rulings, ILWU spokesman Craig Merrilees said.

The OCU and ILWU Local 63 have had their own internal jurisdictional issues over the years, with the marine clerks claiming some of the work performed by the OCU belongs to them.

Merrilees responded: “While jurisdictional differences occasionally arise within the ILWU, our paramount concern involves the securing of good jobs for working families. Employers have a long history of trying to outsource clerical work and destroy good jobs, so this remains of great concern to all union members.”

Employers and the OCU are also at odds over a contract requirement in which the union fills an office worker position from the hiring hall whenever a full-time worker is not available.

Stephen Berry, the attorney who represents employers in contract negotiations, said in many instances there isn’t enough work to perform, so paying sick pay to the full-time worker plus a day’s salary to a replacement worker is becoming too costly. With each OCU worker guaranteed up to 61 days off a year for vacations, holidays and illness, OCU members work on average four days a week, he said.

According to Fageaux, the worker replacement requirement goes back more than 10 years when some employers placed onerous workloads on clerical workers. The OCU agreed to waive the requirement on case-by-case basis, and has done so thousands of times when the workload does not warrant a replacement worker, Fageaux said

The issue flared again this past year when the OCU agreed to emergency relief during the recession. Some employers are taking advantage of the situation now that cargo volumes are returning, Fageaux said.

Contact Bill Mongelluzzo at