* ILA authorized president to call a strike if necessary
* Dock workers' contract set to expire Dec. 29
* ILA hasn't gone on strike since 1977
By Marcy Nicholson
NEW YORK, Dec 19 Dock workers on the U.S.
Atlantic and Gulf coasts moved closer to a potential strike,
which would disrupt the delivery of everything from furniture to
coffee, after talks broke down between their union and the
organization representing shipping companies and ports.
"They've authorized the (ILA) president to call one if
necessary but we still have time between now and the end of this
extension," said International Longshoremen's Association (ILA)
spokesman Jim McNamara, referring to a potential strike.
The ILA and the U.S. Maritime Alliance (USMX) have been
negotiating with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service
since the contract, which was initially set to expire in
September, was extended in September to Dec. 29.
Talks broke down on Tuesday, and as of Wednesday, neither
side had agreed to return to the bargaining table. If the ILA
contract expires on Dec. 29 without a resolution, ILA president
Harold Daggett could call a strike a day later, McNamara said.
It would be the ILA's first industrial action on the U.S.
east coast in 35 years, he said.
Some importers have taken steps to avoid any potential
disruption to deliveries and supplies, although retailers may be
relieved a work stoppage would come after the seasonal Christmas
The collapse of talks follows an eight-day strike by harbor
clerks at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach earlier this
month, which brought activity almost to a standstill and sapped
the region's economy of an estimated $8 billion.
Staff at the two neighboring ports in California returned to
work on Dec. 5 after the International Longshore and Warehouse
Union reached a contract deal with management.
On the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, the ILA represents roughly
15,000 to 20,000 dock workers who load and unload automated
containerized cargo at 36 major ports from Maine to Texas. The
cargo ranges from clothes to agricultural commodities to
beverages and furniture.
The Port of New York and New Jersey is the biggest on the
U.S. east coast, according to the New York/New Jersey Port
Authority's website, with nearly 5.3 million 20-foot containers
(Teus) moving through it in 2011, up 4 percent from 2010.
Both sides are at loggerheads over the container royalty,
which the ILA dock workers receive at the end of the year and
which goes toward their benefits.
Before talks collapsed, the ILA had proposed extending the
current contract until Feb. 1, provided that the container
royalty was removed on the negotiating table. McNamara said this
was rejected by the USMX.
In turn, the USMX said the ILA had rebuffed a separate
proposal by the mediator for a contract extension to Feb. 7.
"While USMX agreed to the extension, ILA rejected it,
refusing to discuss any changes to the status quo on container
royalty and renewing its vow to strike," the USMX said on its
Wages for ILA dock workers range roughly from $21-$33 per
hour, McNamara said.