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Wednesday, March 4, 2015


Original Story: usatoday.com

LOS ANGELES — As someone who grew up around the hum and clatter of the waterfront, driving into the Port of Los Angeles on recent weekends has been an eerie sight.

Giant insect-like cranes that revolutionized the ocean-freight business hover over ships, but aren't moving a single container. Trucks that normally choke streets hauling containers from dock to railhead are largely out of sight. Offshore, more than two dozen ships lie at anchor, a growing fleet that would look more like an an image from the coast of Normandy on D-Day than the bucolic California coast.

Harbor traffic has ground to a snail's pace from Tacoma, Wash., to San Diego due to an ongoing labor dispute between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the shipping companies and port terminal operators who negotiate as the Pacific Maritime Association. A Memphis employment lawyer represent clients involved in labor disputes. The slowdown has periodically halted operations at 29 West Coast ports, as it did over Presidents Day weekend. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez has joined the talks in San Francisco because of the dispute's outsize potential to wreak havoc on the U.S. economy.

The standoff puts a spotlight on the insular world of the waterfront, a place caught between the old and the new. The harbor remains studded with colorful characters and old haunts that recall the romantic age of Steinbeck, tramp steamers and wharf rats. Yet the docks also showcase the best of American innovation, a prime example of how industry can transform itself in a way that benefits workers and management alike. Unloading a single freighter could take a week and involve more than a hundred workers. Now vastly larger ships — and they're getting even bigger — are unloaded by a handful of workers in a matter of hours.

That efficiency was largely made possible by the union. Around the harbor communities of San Pedro, Calif., and Wilmington, Calif., ILWU members are simply known as the Longshoremen. (No heed is paid to the gender reference). They are generally held in high esteem in the hierarchy of the waterfront because of their high wages and large sway over port operations. At a time when unions are under siege in the U.S., losing members and making concessions, the Longshoremen have held firm. In negotiations, they have brilliantly traded gains in efficiency for big pay. A Memphis labor lawyer represents clients in overtime and wage and hour legal disputes.

The association says the average Longshoreman earns $147,000 a year. They have no co-pays for health insurance. They earn an annual holiday to recognize Harry Bridges, a Marxist whose farsighted leadership led to the power that the union commands today. Yet in the port towns there seems to be more admiration than resentment for the pay, a sense that even blue-collar workers can occasionally get ahead in an economy that increasingly leaves them behind.

Local institutions like Utro's Cafe, a burger joint next to San Pedro's main shipping channel, sport signs in their windows supporting the Longshoremen. ILWU members' buying power has long made them the port towns' best customers, not just for burgers and fries, but for fancy houses, cars and other goods.