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BY ALEX VEIGA, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 14 minutes ago
LOS ANGELES - Negotiators for a clerical union and some of the world's largest shipping lines and terminal operators were still far apart on a contract deal early Monday and facing the possibility of a strike that could cripple the nation's largest port complex.
The union's strike deadline passed at 12:01 a.m. Monday.
An hour later, John Fageaux Jr., president of the office clerical unit of Local 63, a division of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, emerged from the closed-door session firm that if talks with shipping lines at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach collapsed, the union would strike.
"We're in the process of presenting our last, best and final offer," he said.
Steve Berry, lead negotiator for the 14 marine terminal operators and other firms who employ the office clerks, said the parties were still talking shortly before dawn. He wouldn't say if any progress was being made or predict a timetable for ending discussions.
"We're working hard. We just keep going," he said.
A work stoppage could create ripple effects throughout many industries that depend on timely movement of cargo. It also would come as the ports enter their busy pre-holiday season, when shippers depend on the facilities to handle imports.
The 15,000-member ILWU has indicated it will honor picket lines, which would effectively shut down the neighboring ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The port complex accounts for 40 percent of all the cargo container traffic coming into the United States.
The roughly 750 clerks who work at marine terminals at the ports handle bookings for the export of cargo and other transport documents.
Under their most recent contract, full-time, port clerical workers earned about $37.50 an hour, or $78,000 a year. They also receive a pension, health care benefits free of premiums and 20 paid holidays a year.
Berry said late last week that employers' latest offer included raises that over the life of a three-year contract would bump the employees' hourly pay to $39.20; the union is seeking increases that would equal $53 per hour by the last year of the contract.
In 2002, longshore workers across the West Coast were locked out for 10 days over a contract dispute. The shutdown cost the nation's economy an estimated $1 billion to $2 billion a day.