A strike that began Tuesday afternoon in one terminal at the Port of Los Angeles spread Wednesday, crippling much of the operations at the nation's largest port complex.
By the end of the day, workers had struck at six of the seven terminals at the Port of Los Angeles and three of six terminals at the Port of Long Beach, officials said.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 Office Clerical Unit, which is working under terms of a set of contracts that expired in June 2010, began setting up the additional picket lines around midday Wednesday.
Other longshore bargaining units refused to cross the lines, and no cargo at the nine affected terminals was unloaded or loaded after the strike began. Officials said shipping lines were either sending ships to other ports or having them wait off the coast.
"We are completely shut down," said Alan McCorkle, senior vice president of APM Terminals Pacific Limited, the largest terminal operator at the Los Angeles port. "There's no work for us to do until we can start moving cargo again."
It is not clear when the strike will end, but insiders say one of three scenarios is likely. In the first, the sides will come to an agreement on a new set of contracts. In the second, the Office Clerical Unit will quietly drop its picket lines and return to work as it continues to bargain for a new contract, effectively going back to the situation before the strike. In the third, President Barack Obama could seek an emergency injunction under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, which could require the workers to return to the port during an 80-day cooling off period.
If longshore workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach wanted to pick the most strategic opportunity for a strike -- a chance to exert pressure on terminal managers without affecting the flow of the most crucial holiday goods to stores -- experts say they may have found it.
That's because this week is considered among the lightest of the year for freight shipped from Asia. All of the goods meant for the Christmas shopping season -- items like furniture, televisions and toys -- arrived at both ports about a month ago. And major retailers have a few weeks before they'll need to restock their shelves.
"If it had happened in mid-October or if it had happened about the same time Superstorm Sandy was striking the East Coast and plugging up things there, that would have been horrible," said Kristen Monaco, professor of economics at California State University, Long Beach. "This sends a message. The intent is not to actually disrupt operations for a week. It's to cause a couple of days of discomfort to show what could happen."
But while a one- or two-day strike at this time of the year might not affect the Southern California economy greatly, experts say if it lasts any longer it could cripple the area. Shippers generally have the option to send their goods to various ports, and it's possible they might start sending cargo to more locations in the future.
"You start worrying about it," said Jock O'Connell, who analyzes shipping industry trends for Beacon Economics. "The longer term consequences of this would be to further undermine the idea that these are not reliable ports to ship your goods to. You don't want to rely on a port that for whatever reason shuts down."
Los Angeles and Long Beach are the giants of the American port industry, with Los Angeles the top port, measured by container traffic, and Long Beach second, according to industry data. Los Angeles is the world's 16th busiest port by container traffic while Long Beach is 18th, statistics show.
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