Mayan port apocalypse back east?

By John Talton, December 20, 2012, Seattle Times

The best send-up of the unpleasantness some fear on Friday was a cartoon I saw on Facebook. One Mayan says to the other, “Wanna beer?” The other replies, “I’m working on this calendar, but I guess if I don’t finish it won’t be the end of the world.” If it really does happen, I won’t have to worry about tomorrow’s poll question.

One doomsday date to keep in mind is Dec. 29th, when the contract extension between the International Longshoremen’s Association and the United States Maritime Alliance expires. Talks broke down Tuesday. The result could be a strike on the east and Gulf coasts. Among the ports affected are Boston, New York and New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Hampton Roads, Va. (Norfolk), Wilmington, N.C., Charleston, S.C., Savannah, Ga., Jacksonville, Fla., Miami, Mobile, Ala., New Orleans and Houston.

The result would decidedly bigger than the labor troubles in Portland and Vancouver. New York-New Jersey is the largest container port in the east. The National Retail Federation this week sent a letter to President Obama urging him to use his powers to prevent a strike. Other signatories include the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, American Apparel & Footwear Association, American Farm Bureau Federation, National Association of Manufacturers, Toy Industry Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

There hasn’t been a serious strike by this wing of the longshoremen since 1977. Now, the most important point of dispute are container royalties royalties paid to workers. These trace back to increased containerization and automation in the 1960s, which were decimating the workforce and making it impossible to finance benefits. The Maritime Association wants to cap royalties at 2011 levels. For the union, this represents a pay cut and goes back on a promise by the association to remove the cap in exchange for being allowed to use the royalties to fund a pay increase.

It’s unlikely the standoff or strike would have an immediate affect on West Coast ports. That would be different if the wider Panama Canal were open and bigger container vessels from Asia bound for the east could detour here.

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