News Column

Strike Looms at Southern, East Coast Seaports

Dec. 27, 2012

Doreen Hemlock, Sun Sentinel

Florida Gov. Rick Scott has asked President Barack Obama to prevent a potentially "devastating" strike by dockworkers at 15 East Coast and Gulf Coast seaports when their contract expires Saturday.

The longshoremen's union represents more than 14,000 workers handling containerized cargo at seaports from Massachusetts to Texas, including four in Florida: Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami and Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale.

A dockworker's walkout starting Sunday would not affect passenger cruise ships, U.S. mail, military cargo, perishable cargo or non-containerized cargo called break bulk, such as cars or steel.

But it could have a major impact on distribution of household items from clothes to footwear, cleaning supplies to paper and supplies for manufacturers.

"The predicted effects of a strike on the State of Florida would be devastating," Scott wrote in a three-page letter to Obama dated Friday.

Scott urged the president to invoke powers under the Taft-Hartley Act to protect the public from labor disputes that "imperil the national health or safety." He wants Obama to prevent the union from striking.

The governor will hold a press conference about the looming strike Thursday morning.

Port Everglades authorities have scheduled a meeting for Thursday at 3 p.m. to address user concerns about a potential strike and address the port's plan, Port Director Steve Cernak said.

The Port of Miami Terminal Operating Co., which runs the only terminal at PortMiami not owned by a shipping line, said it will respect a dockworkers strike and will not handle vessels or open gates during a work stoppage. The company urged terminal users to try to pick up any sensitive import cargo by Saturday, a statement said.

The National Retail Federation also has asked Obama to use "all means necessary" to head off a strike, which they fear could have catastrophic ripple effects nationwide.

"We foresee this as a national economic emergency, to be honest," said Jonathan Gold, the group's vice president of supply chain and customs policy.

Billions of dollars worth of commerce at countless businesses nationwide could be affected, from auto manufacturers awaiting parts to the truckers that deliver them, the Retail Federation said.

James McNamara, a spokesman for the International Longshoremen's Association, said the union knows what's at stake for others but must protect its membership.

"We offer the labor that keeps the commerce moving," McNamara said. "If management doesn't appreciate or respect the labor that has made them a lot of money, then we have to do what we have to do."

The longshoremen's union represents roughly 14,500 workers at the 15 seaports, which also include Boston, Delaware River, Baltimore, Hampton Roads, Va., Wilmington, N.C., Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., Mobile, Ala., New Orleans and Houston.

The union already agreed to a 90-day extension of their current contract. On Dec. 18, a federal mediator offered another month-long extension, but talks broke down over issues including container royalties.

The royalties are payments to union workers based on the weight of containerized cargo received at each port. They were created in the 1960s to boost wages and finance worker benefits after rising automation trimmed salaries and jobs, making it tough for a smaller workforce to fund benefits, McNamara said.

Shipping companies and port operators, represented by the U.S. Marine Alliance, want to cap the royalties at 2011 levels, saying they've morphed into a huge expense that hurts the industry's competitiveness. They estimate the royalties amount to a bonus averaging $15,500 per year for East Coast workers who already earn more than $50 per hour.

The union says the payments aren't a bonus, but a supplemental wage. In a previous contract, management agreed to remove the royalties cap and to use $42 million of royalties to cover a previous wage increase. Now, the union can't revive the cap and cut worker income and revenue, McNamara said.

Some seaport executives also are waiting to see whether Obama will act to stop the walkout.

"Frankly, there's not a lot we can do except than hope that cooler heads prevail," said Philadelphia port executive Robert Blackburn. "If they don't, perhaps there will be intervention by the president."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



Source: (c)2012 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) Distributed by MCT Information Services


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