Workers may strike at docks

Associated Press file photo by Steven Senne -- A truck driver watches as a freight container, right, is lowered onto a tractor trailer by a container crane at the Port of Boston in Boston on Dec. 18. The crane and a reach stacker, left, are operated by longshoremen at the port. The longshoremen's union may strike if they are unable to reach an agreement on their contract, which expires Dec. 29. A walkout by dock workers represented by the International Longshoremens Association would bring commerce to a near-halt at ports from Boston to Houston. Show caption
Associated Press file photo by Steven Senne -- A truck driver watches as a freight container, right, is lowered onto a tractor trailer by a container crane at the Port of Boston in Boston on Dec. 18. The crane and a reach stacker, left, are operated by longshoremen at the port. The longshoremen's union may strike if they are unable to reach an agreement on their contract, which expires Dec. 29. A walkout by dock workers represented by the International Longshoremens Association would bring commerce to a near-halt at ports from Boston to Houston.

Some local longshoremen could soon go on strike if their union and the organization that represents shipping companies and various ports across the country can’t come to an agreement on several aspects.

Talks between the International Longshoremen’s Association and the United States Maritime Alliance broke down Dec. 18. The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said Monday it has called a meeting of the two groups ahead of the Dec. 29 negotiation deadline, though a contract extension was not announced as of Thursday afternoon.

Key among the dock workers’ concerns are pay, health care and container royalties, which were established in the 1960s as a way to protect ILA members from job losses created by containerization and its introduction of automated cargo.

A work stoppage could lead to a partial, if not an entire, halting of container shipping at 14 ports on the East and Gulf coasts, including in New Orleans. The last East and Gulf Coast port strike was 1977

In a statement, Port of New Orleans officials said they have had “informal discussion” with both local parties and remain “optimistic and hopeful” that an agreement between the two groups will be forthcoming.

While the port acts only as a landlord and doesn’t actually handle cargo, it said it will provide necessary access to cargo facilities and locations for demonstrations.

The ILA has told port officials that orders to handle some forms of cargo, perishable commodities and passenger ships would be honored, leaving many port functions unaffected.

Still, the possibility of a strike makes many in the shipping industry uneasy because of the fragile condition of the economy.

“A work stoppage at this time would interrupt the slow, steady national economic recovery process and could be detrimental to all parties,” the port’s statement reads in part.

According to the National Retail Federation, a 10-day lockout that shut down all ports on the West Coast in 2002 cost $1 billion a day. It took more than six months for the ports’ and retailers’ supply chains to recover, according to the NRF. The maritime alliance claims that a decade later, there are still lingering effects from that shutdown.

“A coastwide port shutdown would have a significant impact across all businesses and industries that rely on the ports, particularly retail,” NRF Vice President for Supply Chain and Customs Policy Jonathan Gold said in a prepared statement.

The Associated Press

contributed to this report.