By STEVE BINDER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Port operators and Eastern longshoremen agreed in late December 2012 to temporarily prevent a strike of about 14,500 workers at 14 major ports, but negotiations to reach a permanent settlement before a Feb. 6 shutdown continue.
At stake are about 40 percent of the shipments of all products, including grain, coming into and going out of the United States. While both sides in the labor dispute – the International Longshoremen’s Assoc. (ILA) and the US Maritime Alliance – declined to discuss specific details of the extension deal reached in December, they did say a key point of contention was settled.
A deal was reached over so-called “container royalties,” which are paid to every longshoreman and are based on the weight of goods loaded and unloaded, and which have added up to about $15,000 a year for an average worker.
“The container royalty payment issue has been agreed upon in principle by the parties, subject to achieving an overall collective bargaining agreement,” said federal mediator George Cohen, who spoke to The Associated Press.
Cohen added “the agreement on this important subject represents a major positive step toward achieving an overall … agreement” but that “significant issues remain in contention.”
Talks resumed last week. A strike, according to labor experts, would hit America’s economy hard. Ports from New York through Houston – including a major grain port in New Orleans – handle approximately 100 million tons of goods annually and would cost an estimated $1 billion a day.
It would also be the first East Coast ports strike since 1977, and its possibility raised enough concern with business groups and government leaders – including Florida Gov. Rick Scott – that they sent a letter to President Barack Obama in December asking him to invoke the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act and stop a strike, if need be.
Former President George W. Bush used the act in 2002 and forced the International Longshore and Warehouse Union back to work during the holiday season.
Cohen said he is “cautiously optimistic” both sides will come to an agreement before the new Feb. 6 strike deadline, but he also said such an action would have significant economic impact.
Much of the goods that come into the United States head straight to giant retailers such as Walmart and home improvement stores like Home Depot. An interruption of outgoing commodities such as grain, coal and other goods would add more to the costs.
The strike threat isn’t the most immediate danger facing trade traffic these days, though. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Coast Guard continue to battle low water levels along the Mississippi River between St. Louis and southern Illinois. The Corps is spending millions now to remove rock pinnacles near Thebes, Ill., to keep barge traffic open through the 180-mile stretch of the river.