Cargo Moving Again At Calif. Ports After Strike Ends

Cargo started moving again on Wednesday at the nation's largest ports. An eight-day strike by clerical workers at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach is over. Melissa Block talks with Kirk Siegler from the port, where clerks, longshoremen and truckers are all glad to be back on the job.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The trucks are rolling again at the nation's biggest port complex. The strike is over at the twin ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California. Clerical workers tentatively agreed to a new contract late last night, ending an eight-day walk-out. Now those clerks - along with longshoremen, truckers and others - are working around the clock to clear a massive backup of cargo.

NPR's Kirk Siegler joins us from the Port of Long Beach. And, Kirk, what's the scene there where you are?

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Well, I can actually see quite a bit more now that the dense fog has started to lift some, and seeing a port that appears to be returning to normal, if slowly. You know, on the other side of the chain-link fence from where I'm standing, I can see a long line of idling semi trucks waiting to pick up cargo from ships that have been backing up here over the past week.

One port official I spoke to today said, you know, clearing this backlog of all of this cargo is going to really be a 24/7 operation here. And it could take several more days, if not a week, before things seem to be more or less back to normal.

BLOCK: Now, it was a strike by clerical workers but then the longshoreman refused to cross the picket lines and that idled thousands and thousands of people. Pretty happy there today?

SIEGLER: Yeah, I mean, it's safe to say there's a real sense of relief and you can feel it, especially among the clerical union workers, you know, who have been without a contract working here since the summer of 2010. But I think, you know, the most palpable sense of relief is among the nonunion workers who were, you know, caught in the middle of all of this - the thousands of truck drivers mainly, who haul the cargo away from here, have been sitting here idle at these ports without pay.

Just a short while ago at a nearby taco truck, I met one of these drivers, Oswaldo Oriana.

OSWALDO ORIANA: We all understand what they want, to live better and that's why they strike. But they never think of people who don't. If we don't work, we don't make money - that is the first thing - and everybody stopped and not just us.

SIEGLER: And, Melissa, as Mr. Oriana indicating there, you know, the economic impact of the strike is going to be huge, not just with the billions of dollars of cargo that's moving through here on any given day. But also from the impacts of all the people like him, you know, who haven't been getting paid. That's thousands of people across the region in Southern California.

BLOCK: Now, Kirk, we mentioned this is a tentative deal. Is there any word on how it handles the main issue in the strike, which was claims of outsourcing?

SIEGLER: Yeah, that's the main issue here and we don't have details yet about what is in this tentative agreement. This was a strike not about wages or benefits so much, you know, as it was centered on this charge from the union workers that shipping companies here are outsourcing clerical jobs to places where the work could be done cheaper. And that basically reads overseas.

You know, this is a charge that was vehemently denied by the employers, who have said that they just want more flexibility to not have to fill jobs that they may not think will be needed in the future.

BLOCK: And what needs to happen now, Kirk, for this tentative deal to become final?

SIEGLER: Well, the union leaders need to take it, of course, to all of the union members for a formal vote. But they are saying that it's expected to be approved, we just don't know exactly when yet.

BLOCK: OK, NPR's Kirk Siegler speaking with us from the Port of Long Beach, California. Kirk, thanks so much.

SIEGLER: Glad to do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC BY LOS STRAIGHTJACKETS)

BLOCK: And, Audie, there's that distinctive surf guitar sound that's threading all through our program today.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Yep, we've invited a guest band here to our studios to play all our break music. We're hearing them now, Los Straitjackets.

BLOCK: And they've brought their high-octane sound to get us moving and help us beat the midweek blues.

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