Cargo ships continued to gather off the coast or divert to other ports as most of the terminals at the nation's busiest seaport complex remained closed Friday during the fourth straight day of strikes by clerical workers, port officials said.

At least 60 clerical workers continued to protest in the rain Friday morning at several terminals. Because longshoremen are honoring the picket line, seven of eight terminals were still shut down at the Port of Los Angeles and three of six terminals were closed at the Port of Long Beach.

Meanwhile, nine vessels were anchored waiting to dock at the ports by Friday afternoon, while nine ships were diverted to Oakland, Panama and Mexico, according to Dick McKenna, executive director of the Marine Exchange of Southern California, which monitors vessel traffic through the twin ports.

More ships are expected to arrive this weekend, including five container vessels today and six vessels on Sunday, McKenna said.

"We are hopeful for a quick resolution," said Port of Long Beach spokesman Daniel Yi, adding that this is the first work stoppage of this magnitude in a decade at the Port of Long Beach.

The strike started Tuesday after talks fell apart between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit, the union representing more than 600 clerical workers at both ports, and their employers, the Los Angeles/Long Beach Harbor Employers Association, which represents shipping agencies and terminal operators in Southern California.

Talks, which have been going on for more than 30 months, resumed Thursday night and both sides were continuing discussions in some form Friday, sources said.

Several politicians and officials have urged both sides to resolve negotiations, fearing more disruption at the ports, which handles 40 percent of the nation's imports.

"Both sides in this dispute understand the critical importance of keeping cargo moving through the San Pedro Bay complex," Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Geraldine Knatz said in a written statement. "Time is of the essence and we urge a mutually agreeable resolution as soon as possible so that we can return to full operations."

Nearly 3 million jobs nationally are supported by the more than $300 billion worth of goods that flow through the two ports, including dockworkers, truck drivers, rail yard workers, warehouse clerks and those along the supply chain.

"We have some of the best and most efficient cargo facilities and workforce in the world," Port of Long Beach Executive Director J. Christopher Lytle said in a written statement. "A quick resolution is critical to maintaining our status as the country's premier gateway for trans-Pacific trade and we urge the parties to come to agreement soon."

The disruption has prompted the Harbor Trucking Association, which represents more than 150 licensed motor carriers and nearly 8,000 port drivers who work at the twin ports, to send a letter Friday to Federal Maritime Commissioner and former Port of Long Beach Harbor Commissioner Mario Cordero, asking him to advocate for a quick resolution.

"As of today, the gates at most of the terminals in the San Pedro Bay Port complex are closed - preventing these 8,000 drivers from picking up containers and being compensated for their work," according to the letter. "In turn, the warehousing and processing workers that stand downstream in the supply chain are being equally impacted. In short, this closure continues to have a devastating impact on all facets of the maritime industry."

When the gates do re-open, the trucking and drayage industry will deal with "unprecedented congestion" at the terminals and a backlog of containers, according to the letter.

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 Association said that it has proposed "absolute job security," guaranteed full-time pay, wage increases and a one-time $3,000 payment to each permanent employee to cover missed pay hikes in 2010 and 2011. 

The proposal also calls for pension raises for the next two years and maintaining pension benefits for the following two years.

In terms of staffing and technology, employers are agreeing to give up full control over whether and when temporary employees are called in to work.

But the union is demanding that employers hire additional, unnecessary employees and is insisting on stronger restraints on the implementation and use of technology, after agreeing to back down on those demands, the employers group said.

Clerical workers picketed two prior times this year at individual terminals. Each time, an arbitrator has ruled that longshore workers couldn't participate in the walkouts.

But a higher-level West Coast arbitrator sided this week with the ILWU, saying that dockworkers can now honor the clerical workers' picket lines without violating their contracts.


karen.robes@presstelegram.com, 562-714-2088, twitter.com/KarenMeeksPT