By Brian Sumers, Staff Writer
Posted: 11/30/2012 07:11:40 PM PST

In an era in which overall union membership has been steadily dropping, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union remains nearly as powerful as ever.

The union has shown its strength this week, as a small bargaining unit – one some management officials quietly say is not absolutely essential to port operations – has essentially shut down much of the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s two largest ports by container volume.

The strikers are members of the Office Clerical Unit – several hundred workers who provide back office functions to most, but not all, of the terminal operators at both ports.

Unlike most longshore units, which sign one contract covering members at all employers along the West Coast, the Office Clerical Unit handles contracts on an employer-by-employer basis, though most of them tend to be negotiated at the same time. At many terminals, clerical workers have been working under terms of contracts that expired in June 2010.

On their own, the clerical workers could not halt operations at the ports.

But as soon as thousands of members of other longshore units – crane operators, forklift drivers, container loaders and unloaders, among them – refused to cross picket lines, cargo movement at both ports slowed to a crawl.

The impact has been dramatic. Many ships bound for Los Angeles and Long Beach have sailed to other ports, where some cargo is being unloaded and sent to its final destination. But many of the cargo containers stuck at other ports and bound for the Los Angeles area are simply being stored dockside, waiting to eventually return to Southern California, a port source said.

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