More than 14,500 dockworkers could strike Sunday

Wilmington, Morehead City workers in limbo

jmurawski@newsobserver.comDecember 26, 2012 

More than 300 shipyard workers in North Carolina could stop loading and unloading cargo ships as of midnight Saturday, the result of stalled contract talks that threaten to idle more than 14,500 dockworkers at 15 of the nation’s major shipping ports.

The strike by the International Longshoremen’s Association, one of the nation’s most successful labor unions, threatens to disrupt the flow of electronics, clothing and other products in and out of the country. If the walkout drags on for weeks, it would force retailers in this part of the country to bring in consumer goods by rail from the West Coast at extra expense.

The looming strike follows a breakdown in contract talks last week and would be the first walkout by dockyard workers on the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico since 1977. In an 11th-hour bid to prevent a strike, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which is shepherding the contract negotiations, on Monday ordered the labor union and the U.S. Maritime Alliance, which represents the shipping industry, to resume talks before the Sunday deadline.

With potentially serious economic consequences looming, retail lobbyists and the Republican governor of Florida, a state which has four ports, have asked President Barack Obama to invoke federal powers to force the striking longshoremen back to the waterfront and their lawyers back to the negotiating table if the walkout takes place. “This is the first time there has been a bona fide threat of a work stoppage (here) in more than 30 years,” said Jeff Miles, deputy executive director of the N.C. Ports Authority. “It’ll put a lot of stress on the system and there could be some spot outages of some goods.”

In North Carolina, an estimated 256 dockyard workers at the Port of Wilmington and about 70 at the Port of Morehead City would walk out. The union workers primarily load and unload containers that are lowered onto tractor-trailer beds and delivered to Kmart, Walmart, Home Depot and other destinations.

The strike would cut off about a third of the cargo and revenue at the Wilmington port, Miles said, but would have negligible impact at the Morehead City facility, where the union workers move rubber, steel and other commodities.

In the past year, a record 461 ships at the Port of Wilmington moved a total of 4.4 million tons of goods, half of that amount transported in containers. The N.C. Ports Authority, which operates the ports at Wilmington and Morehead City, presents itself as a neutral party on the contact dispute.

North Carolina’s ports have a relatively low number of union workers compared to other parts of the country where ports sometimes depend on more than a thousand unionized workers.

“It is colossal,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customer policy at the National Retail Federation, a trade group. “We just want the parties to stay at the table and not engage in the destruction of the supply chain.”

A 2002 lockout lasting 10 days at West Coast ports cost the U.S. economy an estimated $1 billion a day, according to the retail trade group.

The Maritime Alliance says that the average wage of an ILA union worker is $50 an hour, more than twice the average union wage.

Root of the dispute

The contract dispute hinges on the Maritime Alliance’s emphasis on efficiency, cost-cutting and competitiveness. The industry wants to eliminate a half-century-old benefit for all new hires, originally established to protect unionized dockworkers in New York from job losses caused by container shipping.

The “container royalty,” established in 1960, compensates workers for job losses caused by automated container shipping. The benefit pays an average of $15,500 per worker at the 14 East and Gulf Coast ports, according to the Maritime Alliance.

Union workers at these facilities earn an average of $124,000 a year in wages and benefits, the Maritime Alliance said.

The Maritime Alliance also wants to revise its current drug and alcohol policy to require random testing at all ports.

The disputed contract expired in October, and both sides agreed to a 90-day extension that runs out at midnight Dec. 29.

The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said Monday in a brief announcement that the longshoremen’s union and the shipping industry have agreed to attend one more negotiation session before the deadline.

Murawski: 919-829-8932

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