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Truckers picket at ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach; wider disruption of trade possible

United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez throws in his support of striking truckers at a press conference in Wilmington, Calif., on Monday, July 7, 2014. United Farm Workers joined Teamsters as they picketed several trucking companies and shipping terminals at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. (AP Photo/The Daily Breeze, Scott Varley)

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United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez throws in his support of striking truckers at a press conference in Wilmington, Calif., on Monday, July 7, 2014. United Farm Workers joined Teamsters as they picketed several trucking companies and shipping terminals at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. (AP Photo/The Daily Breeze, Scott Varley)

LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Drivers in a long-running labour dispute with three trucking companies at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach began what they said would be an indefinite strike Monday.

The impact on the movement of cargo around the sprawling port complex, the main gateway for hundreds of billions of dollars of trade with Asia, was limited. But the threat of a broader disruption loomed if striking truckers take their pickets from the offices of their employers to the dockside terminals where cranes move containers on and off massive oceangoing ships.

The truckers say the companies have prevented them from unionizing and improperly classified them as contractors — rather than full-time employees — to minimize wages and benefits. They say that their paychecks often register below minimum wage once the cost of renting and maintaining a truck is factored in, and they have filed lawsuits and complaints with state and federal labour agencies to change their status. Companies counter that pay is good and those picketing do not represent the majority of drivers.

On Monday, 120 drivers went on strike against Green Fleet Systems, Total Transportation Services Inc. and Pacific 9 Transportation Inc., according to Barb Maynard, a spokeswoman for a campaign to organize truckers. The three trucking companies have about 400 trucks registered at the Port of Los Angeles — about 10 per cent of those that operate on a regular day, port spokesman Phillip Sanfield said.

Both Sanfield and Port of Long Beach spokesman Lee Peterson said cargo was moving normally, though several terminals were closed to honour a holiday that commemorates the killing of several dockworkers during the 1930s, when organizers succeeded in forming what has become a union with huge leverage at the West Coast's 29 ports.

Members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union had been working without a contract since July 1, when their six-year deal with the association representing shipping lines and West Coast port terminal operators expired. Late Monday, the Pacific Maritime Association and union issued a joint statement that talks would be suspended until Friday morning — union representatives are travelling to the Pacific Northwest to tend to a separate dispute.

The statement also said that the contract would be reinstated during the break.

Both the union and maritime association have said they do not want a disruption in the flow of goods.

That could be a challenge if truckers picket dockside terminals, as Maynard said would happen if trucks from the three companies make those runs.

During past trucker strikes, dockworkers stopped working in solidarity but quickly returned when an arbitrator ruled the job action was not permissible under their contract. When no contract is in place, the arbitration process is not in effect. Once the contract expires again Friday, if dockworkers walk, their employers couldn't force them back to work.

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Associated Press writer Matt Hamilton contributed to this report. Contact Justin Pritchard at https://twitter.com/lalanewsman .

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