A strike at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach entered its fourth day today despite efforts to end the walkout that has idled most of the nation’s busiest cargo complex. Combined, Los Angeles and Long Beach handle 40 percent of the nation’s import trade. Loading and unloading cargo ships have come to a virtual halt with at least 18 cargo ships being unable to load or unload since workers began the strike on Tuesday. A handful of vessels that were anchored offshore apparently left for other ports, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times.

Seven of eight terminals in Los Angeles and three of six in Long Beach were closed to cargo container traffic as dockworkers refused to cross picket lines set up by union clerical workers who claim shippers are outsourcing their jobs.

The walkout involves clerical workers from a chapter of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, who typically make more than $160,000 a year. Dockworkers are a separate unit of the same union. The clerical workers’ contracts with 14 terminal operators expired two and a half years ago. Ongoing contract talks broke off on Monday then resumed on Thursday, ran until midnight and are continuing today.  The chief negotiator for the shippers remained hopeful about a resolution, saying the talks have been professional and courteous.

There was no immediate word on how much the strike is costing the ports. November generally is a slower time for the ports because most holiday goods already have been handled. However, there were concerns that a continued widespread strike could prompt retaliation from terminal operators. A bitter 10-day lockout at a number of West Coast ports in 2002 caused an estimated $15 billion in losses.

At issue is the union’s contention that terminal operators have outsourced local clerical jobs out of state and overseas–an allegation the shippers deny.  Shippers have offered to boost average annual pay from $165,000 to $195,000 and grant 11 weeks of paid vacation.  Workers have said they intend to continue picketing until a contract is reached.

A coalition letter, led by the American Meat Institute,  is currently being circulated and will be sent to President Obama on Monday urging that he use all means necessary to get the two sides back to the negotiating table. The letter will point out that an extended strike at this time could have a greater impact considering the fragile state of the U.S. economy.  The National Chicken Council, along with other U.S. producers, processors, and exporters of poultry and livestock are signing the letter.