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After eight days and billions of dollars in lost business, the shutdown at the nation's busiest port hub is over. Striking clerks at the adjacent ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach have reached a tentative agreement with managers. At issue: worries about outsourcing jobs. The clerks, hundreds of them, and ten thousand longshoremen, who refused to cross picket lines, head back to work this morning.
NPR's Kirk Siegler is with us from NPR West. Good morning.
KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now, just last night federal mediators were brought in, you know, after this was dragging out for days and days, and not much longer: a deal. What do we know about this tentative agreement?
SIEGLER: Well, at this moment we don't know that much, but two federal mediators arrived around 8:30 local time last night, and then just after 10:00, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa walked outside of the hall were the negotiations had been taking place and announced to the TV cameras: mission accomplished. And he praised both sides at the table, calling it a great day for the city and the nation. Standing on one side of the mayor was a beaming Ray Familathe of the Longshore Warehouse Union. And we have a piece of tape to play from him.
RAY FAMILATHE: Sometimes you butt heads with people and you have, you know, tough times and decisions to make, but they also made it happen tonight. So the ships are going to start to move.
SIEGLER: Now, Renee, this deal though won't be final until the union leaders take the contract to their members for the official vote, though they are expected to approve it and things will get moving.
MONTAGNE: And the strike began on November 27, when clerical workers walked off the job. Remind us what was at issue.
SIEGLER: Well, this is what makes this strike, I think, most interesting. At issue wasn't so much wages or benefits like we'd think. Most of these clerical workers were making about 40 bucks an hour on average, after all. Now, what the unions wanted was a guarantee from the shipping terminal operators that their jobs wouldn't be outsourced down the road through attrition to other companies and other states that employ lower wage workers. Now, the operators have long denied that this was going on out there. They said they simply wanted flexibility, because some of these clerical workers' jobs, they said, may not be needed in the future.
Now, as you said, we're talking about only a few hundred clerical workers in this local union. But what's made this strike so huge and so sweeping is they're part of the 10,000 member-plus Longshore and Warehouse Union, which didn't cross the picket lines out there, and this effectively is what shut down most of the nation's busiest port.
MONTAGNE: Well, yes, and it was quite a sight and really quite a drama. I spoke with an expert on international trade yesterday, economist Jock O'Connell, about the shutdown, and he described a very striking scene.
JOCK O'CONNELL: I did see an aerial photograph of the harbor, and it looks something like the photographs of the Normandy invasion of ships lined up.
MONTAGNE: I mean quite a description. Break down for us the economic impact of all those ships sitting out there unable to come into the port.
SIEGLER: Yeah. I mean most estimates we're seeing show about $1 billion a day in goods passes through these ports on these ships before the cargo is then trucked to rail yards and then shipped to, you know, warehouses and distribution centers across the West. Now, these are the main ports for goods coming into the U.S. from Asia. Although, you know, unlike a well-known strike 10 years ago just about here, this one occurred after most retailers had already stocked up for the holiday season, so it's not clear just how big of an impact this is on retailers or consumers right now. But more immediately, most of the brunt of the strike - eight days and counting - was felt by the truckers and those who move the freight inland, you know, thousands of them have been idle now without pay for more than a week.
I spoke with the owner of one trucking company out in Long Beach. You know, he told me that the strike had literally crippled his business and everything had gone to a standstill.
MONTAGNE: Well, given this backlog and this pileup - if you will - how long will it take for things to get back to normal?
SIEGLER: As I said, the agreement itself still needs to be formally ratified. You know, the mayor and others have said the ports are going to reopen today, but as you say, there's this huge backlog out there, ships waiting to get in and unload their cargo and, you know, that's going to take some time before things are fully back to normal.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Kirk Siegler, our newest Southern California reporter, speaking to us from NPR West. Thanks very much.
SIEGLER: Thank you.
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