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Southern California port strike continues to hamper some imports and exports

Some fruit and vegetables are being held up at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles as longshoremen at 10 of the 14 container terminals in those side-by-side ports are refusing to cross picket lines set up by a related clerical union that is on strike.

Freighters have been lining up for days as the strike passed its one-week mark Monday, Dec. 3. The 800-member clerical workers unit of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union Local 63 walked off the job Tuesday, Nov. 27. More than 10,000 longshoremen and other union members have been honoring the strike at most of the piers, though several remained open.

A freight forwarder working the port who asked not to be identified "because I work with the longshoremen every day" expressed dissatisfaction with the situation, but said that "80 percent of the fruit we bring in comes through one of the terminals not being affected at this point. But who knows how long that will last? This could spread to all the terminals any day now."

He said that while most of the fruit he handles has gotten through, "We have a container of asparagus from Peru and some Italian kiwi that is stuck. The asparagus is pretty perishable, so we need to get it released soon."

Kurt Cappelluti, sales manager of Stellar Distributing Inc. in Madera, CA, is the importer of the kiwi and he was not happy at all.

"This is a joke," he said. "You always hear that the East Coast ports have the union problem but the West Coast is wide open. I've never had this happen in 25 years on the East Coast. This is a joke."

He said that he has no reliable information as to when this strike will end or when his fruit will be released. He said he has no power in this dispute and has no way to divert ships that are currently on the seas.

"It's like Gilligan telling the Skipper what to do," he quipped. "Nobody is going to listen to me."

Combined with the hurricane earlier this fall that delayed shipments heading into East Coast ports, Mr. Cappelluti said it has been a rough autumn.

Dennis Johnston of Johnston Farms in Edison, CA, whose firm is currently exporting citrus to Australia and other South Pacific markets, said, "We export almost exclusively out of Los Angeles and Long Beach. We only go to Oakland (CA) when we miss a connection and have to catch the ship up there."

So far, he said, those shipments haven't been interrupted by the strike. "My understanding is that the ship lines currently impacted are East-West lines going to China and other Asian ports. Our shipments haven't stopped, but I understand it could spread to those piers any day."

Mr. Johnston said that his firm merely fills orders and does not arrange transportation, so he doesn't have a clear handle on what's going on. "But our customers are still ordering the fruit and they wouldn't be doing that if they couldn't load," he said.

He said that Navel orange shipments from California have been going for about a month. He added that exports typically increase significantly after the first of the year with increased volume to Asian markets as well as the South Pacific.

The labor dispute apparently involves the future of union representation for clerical jobs after individuals retire from those jobs. As of Dec. 3, the ILWU was refusing to allow outside mediation.

According to the Maritime Exchange of Southern California, which tracks shipping traffic in the region, the strike has caused about a dozen freighters to take their cargo to other ports, while at least 11 freighters were lined up outside the harbor ready to dock.

Los Angeles Mayor Anthony Villaraigosa did publicly ask negotiators for both sides to bring in a mediator to help resolve the dispute and to stay at the bargaining table around the clock until an agreement is reached.

Other groups affected by the dispute, including truckers and retailers, have also asked that mediators be used to expedite a settlement.

Though not technically perishable, many of the ships in the ports are loaded with merchandise looking to be sold to consumers during this holiday season.

The seven-day strike at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is the largest disruption of cargo traffic through the two ports since a 10-day lockout at West Coast ports in 2002. Last year, the two ports together handled more than $400 billion in goods arriving or leaving the West Coast.