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Eastern Docks Headed for a Rumble?




While most eyes are focused on January 1 and that storied piece of geography known as the fiscal cliff, another crisis looms next week: A longshore workers strike that could shut down docks along the Eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico. The International Longshoremen’s Association hasn’t waged a full-fledged strike since 1977, but is now threatening to do so if a new collective bargaining agreement is not in place by December 30. The union’s contract with the U.S. Maritime Alliance expired September 30.

Writes the New York TimesSteven Greenhouse:

“The strike threat has so alarmed corporate America that more than 100 business groups wrote to President Obama last week to urge him to intervene to push the two sides to settle — and, if need be, to invoke his emergency powers under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act to bar a strike.”

According to a statement released December 24 by the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the two sides have agreed to sit down with the service to discuss extending the longshore workers’ contract, during which time both negotiations and port operations would continue.

At the heart of the standoff is the shippers’ demand that container royalty payments become locked at the present rate for current workers – and completely denied to future ILA members. The payments, which were instituted as a form of compensation to the union when it began losing members to container technology in the 1960s, have evolved into a kind of pay bonus to workers, many of whom, complains the Maritime Alliance, weren’t born when the royalties first went into effect. Using a management talking point that has become all too familiar to unions for at least a decade, the alliance claims the change is needed for it to remain competitive with non-ILA ports.

The hard-knuckle demands of the shippers have put the union in a tight corner and place enormous pressure on two men. ILA president Harold Daggett took office only last year, on a pledge to stand up to management militancy. And, as a Democrat recently re-elected president with massive help from organized labor, Barack Obama would rather not invoke Taft-Hartley – as his Republican predecessors had done in longshore lockouts and strikes in, respectively, 2002 and 1971.

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