Truckers Strike At LA Port, While Dock Worker Talks Continue

Tensions are high between workers and the shipping industry at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. NPR's Kelly McEvers speaks with reporter Kirk Siegler about the ongoing labor dispute at the largest port complex in the United States.

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers. There's been tension this week at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. Mind you, this is the largest port complex in the U.S. A place where 40 percent of the cargo arriving to the country passes through. More than 100 short-haul truck drivers at the ports are on strike. These are the guys who move cargo off of container ships and into warehouses and rail yards. Many of them work as independent contractors, meaning they have to pay for their own vehicles and they don't get benefits. These strikes are happening amid much larger ongoing labor talks between the shipping industry and the union that represents 20,000 dockworkers here on the West Coast. NPR's Kirk Siegler has been covering this story. We talked to him down at the port. Kirk, what is the atmosphere like down there? What's going on?

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Well, Kelly, I mean it's important to stress here that stuff is definitely still moving. I'm looking at container cranes getting set to offload containers from some ships coming in. A queue of idling semi trucks are waiting to get into this terminal. There have been minimal disruptions here this week. From here, I can see one of those. It's a line of picketers at the entrance to the terminal. They'll come out occasionally. Overall, things are definitely moving.

MCEVERS: So Kirk, then what are the chances of a full-blown strike down there?

SIEGLER: I think very minimal. You know, the people I've been talking to, who close to the labor talks, they think that's not going to happen or it's very unlikely. You know, there's a lot of pressure to reach that bigger deal between Longshoremen and the Pacific Maritime Association. And this West Coast port and others like it, you know, have been losing competitive share over the past few years. And there's a concern that cargo will continue to go to other ports on the East Coast, through the Panama Canal, if this ongoing labor issue isn't resolved. But, you know, the shipping companies aren't taking any chances. Case in point, even though that strike may be unlikely, many companies do have contingency plans in place. They're either going to send the cargo by air, divert ships to ports in Canada or Mexico - still a very complex and unfolding situation.

MCEVERS: I mean, as he mentioned, LA and Long Beach ports make up the biggest port complex in the country. I mean, it would be a really big deal if it shuts down, right?

SIEGLER: Exactly. I mean, if you just picture what it looks like where I'm standing, you know, these two ports cover an area of 16 square miles combined. There's a queue of container ships after container ships, unloading about $2 billion worth of goods - just every day. And you know, these ports also directly and indirectly, according to port officials, support more than 1 million jobs in this region. This is the point of entry into the U.S. for almost everything that's manufactured in Asia. So Kelly, that iPhone you're carrying, the jeans you may buy - chances are it came right through one of these ports.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler down at the LA-Long Beach ports. Kirk, thanks so much.

SIEGLER: Glad to do it.

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