By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Union and management negotiators agreed on Tuesday to the intervention of a federal mediator in a bid to settle a week-old strike by clerical workers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that has idled most of America's biggest container port complex.
The agreement to mediation, announced by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, came after an all-night bargaining session that a spokesman for the Harbor Employers Association, representing shippers and terminal operators, said had left the parties "still far apart."
There was no immediate word on when talks would resume.
With mounting economic losses estimated at several billion dollars, the strike marks the largest cargo traffic disruption at the twin Southern California harbor facilities since a 10-day lockout of longshoremen at several West Coast ports in 2002.
The latest strike has prompted at least 18 freighters to change course and take their cargo to other ports in Northern California, Mexico and Panama, according to the non-profit Maritime Exchange of Southern California, which tracks shipping in the region. Seven of those diversions occurred on Monday.
An additional 13 ships were waiting at anchorages outside the Los Angeles-Long Beach complex on Tuesday, unable to unload their cargo, said Dick McKenna, executive director of the Maritime Exchange.
Striking clerks remain at loggerheads with shippers and terminal owners over the future of union representation for jobs and hiring levels after employees retire. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 63 had previously resisted calls for outside mediation.
The 800-member clerical workers unit of the ILWU local walked off the job last Tuesday, with some 10,000 longshoremen and other union members refusing to cross picket lines, forcing a shutdown at 10 of the twin ports' 14 container terminals.
Four other container terminals remained open, along with facilities for handling shipments of automobiles, liquid fuels and break-bulk cargo such as raw steel.
Unlike the labor clash a decade ago, which took place in the fall, the latest dispute is unfolding after the busy pre-holiday shipping season, limiting the scope of its ripple effect.
A number of major U.S. retailers said they have so far been largely unaffected by the strike because the bulk of their Christmastime inventory has already made it to store shelves.
OBAMA 'MONITORING' STRIKE
But the National Retail Federation asked President Barack Obama last week to intervene, warning that a prolonged strike could have a "devastating impact on the U.S. economy."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Monday that Obama was "monitoring the situation" and had urged the opposing sides to remain at the bargaining table.
The brunt of the latest dispute at the two ports, which together account for nearly 40 percent of all U.S. cargo container imports, has been borne mostly by dock workers and truckers in the region. Terminal operators also worry about lost business as some cargo is diverted to competing ports.
Steve Getzug, a spokesman for the Harbor Employers Association, said the two sides agreed to mediation after a marathon bargaining session that ran from Monday evening until nearly 8 a.m. on Tuesday.
Getzug said Villaraigosa met on Monday night with the two sides together and separately, and was in the room when the employers presented their most recent proposal, but that after the all-night session, "we're still far apart."
Union officials were not immediately available for comment.
ILWU leaders say they are demanding that jobs traditionally performed by their members remain classified as union work and subject to the union's contract terms, even after employees holding them retire. The accuse management of seeking to outsource jobs to overseas workers paid for less.
The employers insist on reserving the right to fill only those jobs that need to be filled, and they accuse the union of seeking to set staffing at artificially high levels.
The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach together handled more than $400 billion in goods arriving or leaving the West Coast by ship last year. Experts say the two ports directly or indirectly support some 1.2 million Southern California jobs - workers involved in moving freight to or from the shipping complex.
(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Mohammad Zargham)