As a West Coast contract covering 26,000 dockworkers ran out Tuesday evening, concern rippled among U.S. retailers about a possible strike -- even though talks are continuing.
"From our perspective, it's critical that these negotiations get resolved peacefully and that a new contract gets put in place as quickly as possible," said Jonathan Gold, who focuses on supply-chain and customs issues as a vice president of the National Retail Federation, a trade group.
The shipping and port companies, through their Pacific Maritime Assn. bargaining group, as well as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union said talks were continuing past Tuesday's 5 p.m. deadline and would go days later if needed.
"The PMA is working hard to resolve the remaining issues," the companies said in a statement. Union spokesman Craig Merrilees said: "We're going to keep talking, and the ports are going to keep working."
Key issues remain unresolved between the 71 international cargo carriers and terminal operators and the 15,068-member union. An additional 11,000 nonunion dockworkers would be bound by whatever contract is reached.
Retailers still were nervous.
They remember the 10-day employer lockout at all 29 West Coast ports in 2002 that ended only after President Bush invoked the Taft Harley Act to reopen the docks.
By one estimate, the lockout and the several weeks it took to clean up the backlog cost the U.S. economy as much as $15 billion.
"You can kiss my summer goodbye if that happens again," said Steve Young, president of Allan Co. in Baldwin Park, one of the largest independently owned recycling businesses in the Western U.S.
The company, which exports scrap paper to China, South Korea, India and Indonesia, had to rent three additional warehouses in 2002 and hire more workers to move and store the paper.
Lonnie Kane, president of Los Angeles women's apparel company Karen Kane, also worries about a work stoppage. He said fashion apparel is time-sensitive and could miss contracted delivery dates as well as lose its cachet if stuck on a ship too long.
"At some point, you'd just start drinking arsenic," Kane said.
Last year, the 29 West Coast ports, led by Los Angeles and Long Beach, handled about 1 million tons of cargo a day valued at about $465 billion, according to the maritime association.
Labor experts said today's weak economy makes a walkout or a lockout much less likely this time. The two sides began negotiating in March.
"When you have quiet negotiations like these, it tends to get resolved. Neither side wants a big fight right now," said Nelson Lichtenstein, a labor historian at UC Santa Barbara.
Harley Shaiken, a professor at UC Berkeley who specializes in labor issues, said: "Both sides know the economy is spiraling down at a rapid rate and that adding a strike or a lockout would be pretty damaging."