The nation's retailers, manufacturers and farmers are bracing for a possible strike that could idle U.S. ports all along the Eastern Seaboard and Gulf Coast.
That walkout could begin as early as Sunday after the expiration of a 90-day extension of a contract between the International Longshoremen's Assn. and several shipping lines, terminal operators and port associations.
It would be the first strike by the ILA in 35 years.
Until negotiations broke down last week, the union and the U.S. Maritime Alliance Ltd. — a group of ocean cargo shipping lines, cargo terminal operators and port associations at 14 U.S. harbors — had been trying to iron out terms of a new six-year contract.
One economist who tracks international trade called the dispute a contest of wills between some of the world's biggest cargo operators and one of the nation's strongest labor unions.
The biggest issue involves so-called container royalty fees on cargo, which supplement dockworker wages. Employers want to cap those fees and limit who gets them. The union says the royalty fees should not be changed.
"The shipping industry is trying to take back some of the power," said economist John Husing, founder of Economics and Politics Inc. in Redlands, "but they are up against a union that has abnormal power for its size and one that is in a very strong position."
The ILA said it represents a total of 65,000 dockworkers on the East and Gulf coasts, as well as on several major U.S. rivers and the Great Lakes, as well as in Puerto Rico and Eastern Canada.
The effects of a strike would be mitigated by one factor: This is the slowest season for cargo coming by sea.
Even so, a "failure to reach a contract agreement would result in a coast-wide shutdown at 14 containerized ports — from Maine to Texas — which would have serious economy-wide impacts," a retail federation and coalition of national and state organizations said in a letter sent last week to President Obama.
The letter urged the president to take all steps at his disposal to get both sides back to the bargaining table and keep the cargo moving.
Late last month, most of the Port of Los Angeles and half of the Port of Long Beach were shut down during an eight-day strike by the clerical unit of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
The ILWU, which represents West Coast dockworkers, is not affiliated with the ILA.