In this photo taken December 18, 2012, a reach stacker operated by a longshoreman (R) places a shipping container on a tractor trailer truck at the Port of Boston, Massachussets.
In this photo taken December 18, 2012, a reach stacker operated by a longshoreman (R) places a shipping container on a tractor trailer truck at the Port of Boston, Massachussets.

Two labor disputes are threatening to disrupt traffic from many major U.S. ports, which could hurt the economic recovery.

The first involves 14,500 dockworkers in the International Longshoremen’s Association, who are haggling with companies that handle billions of dollars’ worth of cargo in ports from Maine to Texas, including New York. The contract expires at midnight, December 29, and union members have voted to strike if no deal is reached.

These skilled longshoremen operate high-tech equipment that moves cargo containers swiftly between ships and trains or trucks. Managers say these workers are well paid, and should no longer receive additional payments based on the weight of cargo they handle. These payments started many years ago as a way to compensate longshoremen for the jobs and hours that were lost when ports became highly automated.

The United States Maritime Alliance, or USMX, made up of container shipping companies, says a strike could have a “devastating” effect on the economy and cost striking union members $5 million a day in lost wages. The USMX also says a strike could have “dire” consequences for half a million workers who directly depend on port operations for their livelihood.

Strike – if talks fail

Notes on the longshoremen’s union’s web site say the group hopes to avoid a strike, but contract negotiations are “not progressing well.” The union says a strike could begin at 12:01 a.m. on Sunday, December 30.

Government mediators say union and management representatives have agreed to attend another meeting for talks before the contract expires.

Meanwhile, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service is also working to resolve a separate dispute in the Pacific Northwest involving 3,000 members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and the Pacific Northwest Grain Handlers Association.

These groups handle nearly half of U.S. wheat exports. Union members voted to reject a contract but may continue working while seeking further bargaining.

These disagreements come just a few weeks after an eight-day strike by 450 clerks at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. That hampered activities at the largest U.S. container port when thousands of union members refused to cross the clerks’ picket lines.

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