(New York, NY - WNYC) UPDATED WITH WHITE HOUSE COMMENTS
The White House is urging dockworkers and shipping companies to reach agreement on a contract extension for East Coast and Gulf Coast dockworkers whose existing pact expires this week.
Obama spokesman Matt Lehrich said Thursday the White House is monitoring the situation closely and urges the parties to "continue their work at the negotiating table to get a deal done as quickly as possible."
Earlier this week, a federal mediator called a meeting of the International Longshoreman's Association (ILA) and an alliance of shipping concerns in an eleventh-hour effort to avert a commercially crippling East and Gulf Coast port strike on December 29.
Director George Cohen of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service said the parties have agreed to attend, but gave no information beyond that "due to the sensitive nature of the negotiations."
Dockworkers from Massachusetts to Texas are threatening to walk off the job if an agreement isn't reached by Saturday at midnight, when their contract extension expires.
Talks between the two sides broke down December 18. “We at New York Shipping Association are certainly disappointed that the USMX – ILA negotiations are apparently coming to an abrupt end," said association president Joseph Curto.
The New York-New Jersey ports handled $208 billion of cargo last year, most on the East Coast.
But in what may be a sign that negotiations are gearing up to resume, "no comment" was the uniform word from all sides in the dispute: the New York Shipping Association, USMX (a consortium of 24 container carriers and every major marine terminal operator and port associations on the East and Gulf Coasts) and the ILA, which represents 14,500 workers at more than a dozen ports extending south from Boston and handling 95 percent of all containerized shipments from Maine to Texas, about 110 million tons' worth.
The Associated Press reports that issues including wages are unresolved, but the key sticking point is container royalties, which are payments to union workers based on cargo weight.
Port operators and shipping companies, represented by the Marine Alliance, want to cap the royalties at last year's levels. They say the royalties have morphed into a huge expense unrelated to their original purpose and amount to a bonus averaging $15,500 a year for East Coast workers already earning more than $50 an hour.
The longshoremen's union says the payments are an important supplemental wage, not a bonus.
USMX, on its website, gives several examples of the economic devastation that could result from a strike, including these numbers related to the Port of New York and New Jersey:
The National Retail Federation wrote to President Obama last week and asked him to use "all means necessary" to head off a strike. “A strike of any kind at ports along the East and Gulf Coast could prove devastating for the U.S. economy,” said Matthew Shaw, the group's president and CEO.
Earlier this month, an eight-day strike shut down the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. That strike was resolved only after a federal mediator was brought in.