Baltimore port strike would have widespread impact, officials say -- Gazette.Net







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With a deadline of this weekend looming, the Port of Baltimore is facing a potential strike that some say could cost the U.S. economy millions of dollars a day and affect thousands of jobs.

The International Longshoremen’s Association, which has 14,650 workers nationwide and 1,200 in Baltimore, has threatened to strike if an agreement cannot be reached with the U.S. Maritime Alliance by midnight Saturday. That is when the current trade contract expires.

Although the two groups announced Monday that they would continue negotiating through a federal mediator, James J. White, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration, has said it appears unlikely a deal will be reached in time with the container cargo labor union, according to a report Wednesday in the Baltimore Business Journal.

“While we remain hopeful that an agreement will be reached, we are also realistic,” Richard Scher, spokesman for the port administration wrote in an email to The Gazette.

The administration is proceeding with strike preparation, including extending hours Saturday to handle cargo. The access gates at the Seagirt and Dundalk marine terminals will remain open Saturday.

“We hope that an agreement between the two sides can be reached prior to the deadline,” Scher said.

The Port of Baltimore is part of the labor union’s East Coast and Gulf coverage, which includes 15 ports that range from Maine to Texas.

“If the Port of Baltimore shuts down, it would negatively impact every importer that utilizes the container port, from manufacturers and truck drivers and retailers, affect hundreds if not thousands of U.S. jobs and cost the U.S. economy millions upon millions of dollars a day,” Stephen E. Shatz Sr., spokesman for the National Retail Federation, wrote in an email.

The last East and Gulf Coast port strike was in 1977, Shatz said. A 10-day strike of the West Coast ports in 2002 cost the U.S. economy an estimated $1 billion a day, he said.

“The issue here is much bigger than retail. Any disruption at the port means anyone relying on the port is going to face significant impact,” said Jonathan Gold, vice president of supply chain and customs policy for the retail federation.

The federation is urging President Barack Obama (D) to consider using the Taft-Hartley Act to enjoin a strike, he said. A strike would involve containerized cargo and not include the cruise lines or automobile cargo.

The longshoremen’s contract was originally set to expire Sept. 30 but was extended. Issues in dispute include wages, health care funding and a fund longshoremen use to protect members from job losses associated with the introduction of automated cargo.

The port has seen almost 30 million tons of foreign commerce cross its public and private terminal docks over the past nine months, a 6 percent increase from the same time in 2011, according to a Maryland Port Administration news release. Through the third quarter, the port has handled about $56.1 million in total cargo value, up 10 percent from last year’s record amount.

Business at the port generates about 14,630 direct jobs, with 108,000 others linked to port activities. The port accounts for $3 billion in personal salaries and more than $300 million in state and local taxes, according to the port administration.

The port, as well as other East and Gulf Coast ports, are anticipating increased commerce from the expansion of the Panama Canal by 2015 and a growing volume of U.S.-bound cargo from Asia, according to the Maritime Alliance, which represents employers of the East and Gulf Coast longshore industry.

Representatives of the longshoremen’s association and the Maritime Alliance declined to comment while negotiations are ongoing.

U.S. Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D) “certainly hopes a meaningful compromise can be reached,” Cardin’s spokeswoman, Sue Walitsky, wrote in an email to The Gazette.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) and Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Dist. 2) did not return calls or emails for comment by deadline.