As the clerical workers strike continued to choke much of the goods movement flowing through the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles, a major retail trade association on Monday renewed its call for President Barack Obama to intervene in the hopes of reopening the nation's busiest seaport complex.
"The shutdown is already having a significant negative economic impact on retailers trying to bring in merchandise for their final push for holiday sales and will soon have an impact on consumers," National Retail Federation President and CEO Matthew Shay said in a written statement. "The work stoppage not only impacts retailers, but is also affecting their product vendors - many of which are small businesses - and other industries like manufacturers and agricultural exporters that rely on the ports."
The organization also sent a letter to the president last week.
"As the debate in Washington continues to focus on the state of the American economy and relief for middle-class consumers, a protracted strike will ultimately result in higher prices at the very time we can least afford it," Shay continued in his statement Monday. "This strike is now at the national emergency stage impacting industries far and wide. 'Urging' both sides toward a solution is not the answer. The Obama Administration needs to show leadership and resolve to get the ports operational again and prevent any further economic damage."
The shutdown started about a week ago, when more than two years of contract talks dissolved between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit, which represents about 800 members, and their employers, the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Association, which represents shipping agencies and terminal operators in Southern California.
The clerical workers went on strike Tuesday at one terminal at the Port of Los Angeles, and by Wednesday the picket line had spread.
Members of the other unions at the two ports refused to cross the picket lines, effectively shutting down three of six terminals at the Port of Long Beach and seven of eight terminals at the Port of Los Angeles. That slowed to a crawl the movement of three-quarters of the ports' cargo, which some sources have estimated is costing the economy $1 billion per day.
"If there's no negotiating progress in the next day, I would assume there will be calls for the president to get involved and invoke the Taft-Hartley Act and get people back to work," said Kristin Monaco, an economics professor at California State Long Beach and an expert on port and trucking industry labor issues.
Former President George W. Bush invoked the act in 2002 to end a 10-day dockworkers lockout that had spread across the entire West Coast.
The striking clerical workers, who have worked without a contract since the previous one expired in summer 2010, have expressed concern about the implementation of new booking information technology that could prompt employers to outsource jobs. That technology is already being used at other ports.
The harbor employers said they have offered the union several concessions on staffing and continue to offer wage and pension raises and no layoffs.
Although both sides resumed talks Thursday and negotiated throughout the weekend and today, the strike has been ongoing.
Union leaders at the nation's busiest seaport complex said negotiations were moving in the right direction Monday on the seventh day of a strike, but the employers were less optimistic.
"We're running out of options," management spokesman Steve Getzug said.
He said union negotiators were resisting proposed changes in future hiring practices that he said would give shippers the ability to avoid hiring unneeded employees. It's a practice management dismisses as featherbedding.
"Rather than having artificial staffing levels, we're saying give us the ability to make decisions based on need, and we think that's a reasonable request," Getzug said.
Union spokesman Craig Merrilees, who said the outsourcing issue is the sticking point in talks, said Monday that progress is being made.
"Everybody is working very hard and putting in long hours tonight, an indication that things are moving in the right direction," he said.
Meanwhile, the number of container ships at anchor or being diverted continues to rise.
About 11 container vessels remained at anchor waiting to dock Monday, while another 18 vessels have been diverted since the strike began to ports in Mexico, Panama and Oakland, said Dick McKenna, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which monitors vessel traffic of the two ports.
Because some of the cargo is L.A.-bound, it is possible that some of the vessels may revisit the two ports, depending on how long the strike continues, McKenna said.
City leaders and those representing trucking and other companies have been pleading with both sides to come to a quick resolution, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who was expected to stop by the talks late Monday, and Susan E. Anderson Wise, president of the Port of Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners.
Others have already taken sides. Long Beach Councilmen Al Austin, Patrick O'Donnell and Steven Neal expressed their support for the clerical workers and ILWU Locals 13 and 94.
"We are proud to stand with ILWU Locals 63, 13 and 94 as they stand up to stop the outsourcing of local jobs and seek a new and fair contract," they said in a statement released Monday. "We recognize the importance of port-related jobs to our region and urge that a fair solution be found that ensures our port jobs remain local and are not sent overseas. Further, we recognize the need for our port workers to secure a contract in a timely manner that allows them to fully provide for their families. A quick solution will benefit our working families and our economy."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.