Little time left to head off longshoremen's strike

December 28, 2012 9:10:10 AM

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NEW YORK -- Shipments of products as varied as flat-screen TVs, sneakers and snow shovels could sit idle at sea or get rerouted, at great time and expense, if more than 14,000 longshoremen go on strike as threatened -- a wide-ranging work stoppage that would immediately close cargo ports on the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico to container ships. 

 

Commerce could be brought to a near standstill at major ports from Boston to Houston if the strike takes place on Sunday, potentially delivering a big blow to retailers and manufacturers still struggling to find their footing in a weak economy.  

 

"If the port shuts down, nothing moves in or out," said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy at the National Retail Federation. And when the workers do return, "it's going to take time to clear out that backlog, and we don't know how long that it's going to take." 

 

The 15 ports involved in the labor dispute move more than 100 million tons of goods each year, or about 40 percent of the nation's containerized cargo traffic. Losing them to a shutdown, even for a few days, could cost the economy billions of dollars. 

 

In addition to transporting goods, U.S. factories also rely on container ships for parts and raw materials, meaning supply lines for all sorts of products could be squeezed. 

 

"The global economy moves by water, and shutting down container ports along the East and Gulf coasts while the national economy remains fragile benefits no one," Deborah Hadden, acting port director at Massport, the public agency that oversees shipping terminals in Boston. It is not a part of the contract dispute. 

 

Florida Gov. Rick Scott said "the livelihood of thousands of Florida families lies in the balance." 

 

The master contract between the International Longshoremen's Association and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, a group representing shipping lines, terminal operators and port associations, expired in September. The two sides agreed to extend it once already, for 90 days, but they have so far balked at extending it again when it expires at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. 

 

The union said its members would agree to an extension only if the Maritime Alliance dropped a proposal to freeze the royalties workers get for every container they unload. The Alliance has argued that the longshoremen, who it said earn an average $124,138 per year in wages and benefits, are compensated well enough already. 

 

Federal mediators have been trying to push negotiations along, but there has been no word from either side on the progress of the talks since Dec. 24. As recently as Dec. 19, the president of the longshoremen, Harold Daggett, said the talks weren't going well and that a strike was expected. 

 

The work stoppage would not be absolute. Longshoremen would continue to handle military cargo, mail, passenger ships, non-containerized items like automobiles, and perishable commodities, like fresh food.