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FAQ: What are dockworkers and shippers fighting about at the port?

The clerical workers strike that began last Tuesday has shut  down 10 terminals at the nation's busiest port complex.
Mae Ryan/KPCC
The Port of Los Angeles.

What is the dispute about? 

The Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), which represents shipping companies, and International Longshore and Warehouse Workers Union (ILWU) are battling over a new contract for roughly 20,000 dockworkers at 29 West Coast ports.

Contract talks began in mid-May and reportedly were going well for a while, but things began to unravel in October, according to Jock O'Connell, an International Trade Economist at Beacon Economics.

Sticking points seem to be around how to settle disputes, including when to fire arbitrators - not salaries or benefits.

What's the latest?

Most recently, the PMA suspended the loading and unloading of ships at the ports of L.A. and Long Beach on Washington's Birthday and the three-day President's day weekend.

"The idea behind this is to help clear away some of the back log containers that are piling up on the ports for the past few days and weeks," O'Connell said.

Each side blames the other for that congestion. The dockworkers have been accused of slowing down the pace of work; they, in turn, complain there aren't enough trucks to move the containers off the docks.

Along with the holiday weekend, PMA has cut off longshoreman shifts during nights and weekends, which also garners premium pay.

How will the dispute affect me?

It's already affecting you, according to O'Connell.

Some imports, particularly those from the far east, are being delayed or diverted to different ports. That includes cars, electronics, computers, components needed for manufacturing.

But it's most severely affecting business owners right now. And some more than others.

Tom Nassif, President and CEO of the trade group Western Growers, estimates $2 billion worth of fresh produce has rotted on the docks since November, mostly nuts, citrus, and fresh vegetables. His group represents 50 percent of U.S. produce growers.

But it won't affect my job, right?

Not unless you're a trucker or warehouse worker - at least not yet.

"Through out Southern California particularly in the Inland Empire, San Bernadino and Riverside where there are literally armies of people who are engaged in the processing of goods that are flowing in and out of the ports in San Pedro Bay," O'Connell said.

In many cases, these are contract workers who are sent home when business in the ports decreases. 

Can anybody step in and negotiate?

President Obama said Saturday that he is sending U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez to California to help broker a deal but no specific timetable has been set. Reuters reports that the Department of Labor "is working on Perez's schedule."

"The secretary will meet with the parties to urge them to resolve their dispute quickly at the bargaining table," spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa told Reuters.