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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Labor tensions are high at the largest port complex in the country - Los Angeles and Long Beach - which handles nearly half of all the cargo coming into the U.S.

Short-haul truck drivers are striking. The relatively small strikes come as the shipping companies are also in negotiations with dockworkers over a new contract. If that labor dispute isn't resolved soon, NPR's Kirk Siegler reports a much bigger disruption could be looming on the West Coast.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: As an independent contractor hauling containers from the ships to warehouses across Southern California, truck driver Santos Lopez works long hours - some days ten, others 14. But not this week - this week he's picketing, a long line of semis waiting to enter this container truck.

SANTOS LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken).

SIEGLER: We plan to strike indefinitely, he says, as long as it takes for the trucking companies to recognize us as regular employees with benefits. Right now, Lopez and an estimated 10,000 more independent short-haul truckers at this port have to pay their own way - gas and maintenance for their trucks, insurance, parking fees. Santos has a wife and three daughters to support at home.

LOPEZ: (Spanish spoken).

SIEGLER: My family and I have agreed that going on strike and not getting paid will be hard, but we believe it will pay off in the end, he says. Next to Lopez, a cop stops traffic as the line of picketers walks out in front of the trucks.

A few times this week, there have been work stoppages. And at least three terminals have briefly closed down as some dockworkers with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union stopped working in a show of support for the truckers. Plenty of people think the timing of this week's trucker strike is more than coincidence.

JOCK O'CONNELL: It's a great opportunity for them to take advantage of the fact that a lot of people around the country are getting increasingly anxious about negotiations between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association.

SIEGLER: That's the dockworkers and the shipping companies who are working on a new contract. Jock O'Connell is an international trade expert with Beacon Economics.

O'CONNELL: So this, you know, should give them a leg up in their efforts to negotiate.

SIEGLER: The negotiations between the dockworkers and the cargo industry are set to resume tomorrow morning.

Tony Scioscia is a retired shipping executive and former board member of the Pacific Maritime Association.

TONY SCIOSCIA: The bigger picture here is that the West Coast doesn't want to lose any more market share. They want to negotiate, get this contract done without a disruption.

SIEGLER: When Scioscia says disruption, he means something a lot bigger than this week's trucker strikes. That is, a dockworker strike that could shut down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. That would cost the U.S. economy an estimated $2 billion a day and would come at a critical time for the U.S. retail sector, which is gearing up for the back-to-school season.

SCIOSCIA: Negotiations, I know this from the outside, that they have been civil, they've been very positive, they have been constructive. Of course, they can go the other way very quickly.

SIEGLER: Analysts say that's more of a concern now given the tense atmosphere at the ports this week. Back at the ports, a midday rally at a park in the shadow of three giant container cranes drew leaders from across Los Angeles and the nation.

UNIDENTIFIED PICKETER: We want the truck drivers to know that we will be here today, we'll be here tomorrow and any day, as long as...

SIEGLER: The leaders see their fight as part of a much larger struggle. Unions have been losing members and influence as the ports have moved toward mechanization, and the truck drivers - if they became regular employees, than they could form a union.

FRED POTTER: We're going to show them how they can achieve their rights, get justice, be properly classified and have the rights that so many employees take for granted.

SIEGLER: That's Fred Potter, senior vice president for the Teamsters who flew in from New Jersey. He says the unions will be here backing the truckers and the dockworkers for the long haul. Kirk Siegler, NPR News.

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